Native Americans Share Concerns Over Fate Of Forest

from left to right: Mekko Chebon Kernell, Prof. Laura Harjo, Prof. Craig Womack, Prof. Mark Auslander, Prof. Daniel Wildcat and Rev. Avis Williams

The Muscogee Weelaunee Forest covers 3,500 acres in south Atlanta; it is also known as the South River Forest. A gathering of Muscogee Creek people came to Intrenchment Creek Park for a two-day event to share concerns over the fate of the Forest.

As they reconnect to their ancestral homelands, they hope to engage in a rematriation to restore balance to the world by returning to a spiritual way of life with respect for Mother Earth.

We only have one Mother Earth, respect and protect her from those that pollute, poison, and disrupt the ecological balance of nature that is causing climate change.

Before we dive deeper into the two-day event focused on indigenous perspectives, let’s look at current and past history of the South River Forest. 

HOW THE URBAN FOREST BECAME COP CITY AND A MOVIE STUDIO

This report will focus mainly on the controversial 300-plus acres that include the Old Prison Farm and Intrenchment Creek Park areas of the forest.

All of the South River Forest was initially planned as green space to be connected by an emerald necklace of trails. In 2017, the Atlanta City Council passed an ordinance to place the old Prison Farm’s 300 acres into the charter to be part of the Beloved Community to be protected in perpetuity as an ecological habitat restoration to protect the South River watershed.    

But former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms destroyed that plan when she, without any input from the public, gave the old Prison Farmland to the Police Department to build a police academy a/k/a “Cop City.” The already militarized police will receive training in urban paramilitary operations. This is worrisome since, too often, the police are used to enforce the status quo of white power and colonial control over the lives of black, brown, and other oppressed groups of people.

DeKalb County did its part to destroy the “Beloved Community” by giving 40 acres in Intrenchment Park to Blackhall Movie Studio in exchange for primarily clear-cut land. The South River Watershed Alliance has a lawsuit to prevent the land swap to Blackhall which would clear-cut the trees in Intrenchment Creek.

DeKalb County swapped 40 acres of beautiful forest land for this clear-cut pile of dirt. You can see beautiful Intrenchment Park in the background, Blackhall will clear cut that also if the deal goes through. It is in court now.

PAST HISTORY OF THE WEELAUNEE FOREST

Over the centuries, the Weelaunee forest has seen dispossession, enslavement, incarceration, torture, lynching, landfills, and pollution.

“This was Creek land that was taken from the Muscogee people by the State of Georgia. This area was a plantation, and later it was a prison farm. It was decommissioned, and it reverted back to the forest. Now it’s being targeted for Cop City where they will train people to put more people in cages,”  Laura Harjo, a Professor at the University of Oklahoma, said.

Indigenous people told stories about what their relatives, the trees, water, and land witnessed in past centuries in the Weelaunee Forest.

This forest witnessed the forced removal of the Creek Muscogee people from that area by white settlers and colonizers. The indigenous people did not want to leave but were forced to walk the “Trail of Tears” to Oklahoma like the Cherokee Nation in North Carolina and other tribes in Georgia. Indigenous people never ceded the land; it was stolen from them.

Next came the plantation enslavers who bought and sold Africans like cattle. The enslaved Africans worked in the cotton fields and agricultural fields in this area. They were beaten, raped, tortured, sold, and lynched by white racist slave owners. The Lochlin Johnson slave plantation had the most productive and harshest plantation.

Around 1850, a portion of the Prison Farm land passed back into the hands of two private owners. James Moore owned the land north of Key Road, and George Key owned the Southern part. 

In 1918, the Bureau of Prison and the U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta bought 1,248 acres of the Weelaunee Forest for $160,000. It was 8 miles from the Atlanta Penitentiary and was turned into a farm to raise food for the inmates. The Prison Farm, a/k/a the Honor Farm, picked trustworthy prisoners to work for free as state laborers. According to the Old Prison Farm history, most were African-Americans who had committed minor crimes, while others were in prison for being homeless or alcoholics.

Not much has changed in the past hundred years as poor Black folks, homeless people, addicts, and the mentally ill are still incarcerated for minor violations. 

WHAT PEOPLE WANT IN THE FOREST 

Professor Harjo asked attendees to imagine a future for the forest that doesn’t include carceral systems and this cycle of ongoing violence against Black and indigenous people.

Creative ideas from those in attendance included a Mother Earth University to learn respect for nature and combat climate change instead of Cop City, homes for the homeless, organic gardens, fruit trees, promote native species and medicine plants, keep it green space, a gathering space for the community, music events, a healing space, a place where dogs can run free, clean the creeks and river of pollution. 

A walking trail in Intrenchment Creek Park

“These people were talking about honoring that forest as a teacher, as a healer.  The forest is our elder and can make us better human beings,” Dr. Daniel Wildcat, a Yuchi, and a member of the Muscogee Nation observed.

This forest is at the intersection of many complex issues, from forced removal of Native people, slavery, racism, prison industrial complex, police violence, “Cop City,” environmental racism, to climate change.  It also holds the potential to become a positive force to teach people to appreciate and respect nature and to live in harmony with nature. Two paths – which one will the human species take?

The two paths remind me of the ancient Hopi prophecy as interpreted by Hopi religious elders that I read over 40 years ago. It predicts that in the future, humans will be at a crossroads. One path leads to destruction. The other path is living together in harmony with nature. I believe that climate change is clearly showing us those two paths today.

DR. DANIEL WILDCAT SPEAKS ON ANCESTRAL WISDOM

“It’s been a long time since we’ve been together since our removal on the Trail of Tears. I’m honored to be here to support my Muscogee relatives in this incredible effort to save this forest along the South River,” Wildcat said. The South River is a tributary of the Ocmulgee River.

Wildcat received ancient wisdom from his Yuchi and Muscogee relatives. He is a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University, an International Tribal College in Kansas and has written several books, including  “Red Alert! Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge.” He generously shared this knowledge with those attending the gathering. 

The first point he taught was to respect and honor yourselves, embody the change you want to see in the world, don’t live in fear, and respect the power of nature.  

“Don’t get pulled into the colonial ontology of fear. If you want to see how real that fear is, who will destroy all this [forest] to build a cop city,”  Wildcat said.  

Wildcat’s second point is to fight climate change; we need a cultural change, a change in our thinking and actions. Another way of saying this is that you can’t solve problems with the same thinking that created the problem. 

You have to work with the first peoples of this land, who have deep knowledge, deep wisdom, and a different way of understanding our human place in this creation.

We are treating this planet like an ATM machine. The wealth and resources are removed from the Earth, and pollution is left behind. Let’s move from a worldview dominated by resources to one full of relatives. 

“We don’t live among resources; we live among relatives. The trees, water, land, plants, and animals are our relatives, and we respect them; we don’t destroy them,” Wildcat said.

Point three, the forest [our relative] is a teacher, a healer, and an elder that can make us better human beings. We have a right to have relationships with some of our other [more-than-human] relatives. We have a responsibility to be good relatives in this world to our other relatives in this forest.

“Are humans ready to be mature as a species, or will we continue to behave as immature selfish relative to the balance of this ecological, cultural community we are a part of,” Wildcat questions.

Point four, every corporation in Atlanta has a sustainability plan. Some of those corporations are the worst and most disrespectful destroyers of this ecological community we are a part of. 

Standing Rock showed us how to define what we are doing.  When the press called them protesters, they said, “We are water protectors, and water is life.”

Frame what you are doing in an indigenous way of understanding. We are forest protectors. We are here to protect the forest, the forest gives us gifts of shade and oxygen. 

People who oppose you will try to pull you into the ugliness and the fear of their world. Don’t go there. We are good relatives. 

KINSHIP BETWEEN NATIVE AMERICANS AND AFRICAN AMERICANS

Rev. Dr. Avis Williams has African and Native ancestors.  She grew up in an African community in Covington, Georgia, on property that has been in her family since 1870.  She received a Master of Divinity at Candler School of Theology in 2005. 

Black folks have a deep relationship and kinship with Native people. After the Muscogee Creek people were removed, African-American farmers took care of the land.

As a child growing up with her grandmother, all our needs came from the forest, food and medicine. Trees are natural habitats for animals. We took care of the forest, and the forest took care of us. We were in balance with nature.

“But today, those things are not happening, and we have injustice going on with our trees, our plants, our soil, and our rivers.  So our animals and the people are not in balance, and we’re not at peace. We have a responsibility to continue to take care of the land,” Rev. Williams said.

This is the end of day one. I will publish day two later this week

Streets of Atlanta has written numerous articles on the South Atlanta Forest.

You can read them all at https://streetsofatlanta.blog/.

Written and photos by Gloria Tatum

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