Native Americans traveled from Oklahoma and other states to remember and come back together to discuss what happened long ago in the Weelaunee Forest, a/k/a South River Forest in South Atlanta. They came back to share their hope for a better future for the forest and remind people of their responsibility to protect and respect this extraordinary ecosystem.
The South River Forest is a large urban greenspace containing 3,500 acres. It is in danger of more land being bought by a Hollywood movie studio along the South River and more violence targeting people of color as militarized police in “Cop City” will practice urban warfare.
It’s distressing that “Cop City” is slated to be built on the grounds of the Old Prison Farm, where convicts worked long hours growing food for the Federal Penitentiary, and suffered physical punishment, from the 1920s to the 1960s.
Community leaders have asked for police reform for years. People don’t want a militarized police force. They want the city to invest in communities, prioritize social services, and community development in poor neighborhoods and hold the police accountable for their behavior, plus about 20 additional recommendations to reform the police.
DAY TWO OF THE COMMUNITY GATHERING IN THE FOREST
Dr. Craig Womack, emeritus professor of Native American Studies at Emory University, a Muscogee Creek, was the facilitator at this gathering of Native people and community people at Intrenchment Creek Park.
Native American professors and other professionals discuss the area’s history, including the forced removal of indigenous people, land dispossession, enslavement, slave plantations, history of slave families, gravesites, incarceration, and re-enslavement in the 20th century. But they are hopeful of breaking that cycle of violence toward Indigenous and African people in this area.
Dr. Auslaunder and Rev. Avis William have researched DeKalb County records to learn what happened to slave families that were sold and then lost contact with each other. After emancipation, many families eventually found each other again and became sharecroppers in South DeKalb County.
Dr. Mark Auslander is a visiting faculty at UMass Amherst and Boston University. After leaving Emory University, he wrote a book, ” The Accidental Slaveowner,” about Emory’s founders and their involvement with slavery.
Rev. Avis Williams has African and Indigenous ancestors and grew up in a Black neighborhood in Covington. “We want to reflect on the history of our ancestors that toiled, suffered, and died here. But we look for hope for our future so that we can instruct our young people, so they may arm themselves with knowledge about what happened and will have a better and brighter future.” Rev. William said.
Dr. Auslander and Rev. Williams share the following information:
THE COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MUSCOGEES AND AFRICANS
The relationship between the Muscogee people and enslaved Africans was complicated and riddled with contradictions. Some Muscogees gave sanctuary to escaped slaves, while other Muscogees returned enslaved people to white enslavers for payment, and still others Muscogee owned slaves.
The Muscogee Creek Freedmen band of mixed African and Muscogee blood were enslaved on plantations in Georgia and Alabama. They were forced on the Trail of Tears with all the other tribes and taken to Oklahoma.
The Freedmen Group was disenfranchised from the Muscogee Creek Nation in 1979, and all their rights of citizenship in the tribe were taken away, and they are still fighting for re-entry into the tribe. The loss of tribal citizenship deprived African Creek Freedmen of receiving tribal-funded medical care and higher education.
Rev. Williams and Dr. Womack are in conversations with the Freedmen Group, and hopefully, a few will attend the next gathering in the Weelaunee Forest.
This conversation will focus on enslaved people of African descent owned by white people.
“King Cotton” cultivation depended on the forced removal of indigenous people from the land so the land could be redistributed for white colonizers’ crops, which relied on intensive slave labor and extremely violent enslavement of African people. “We have records of enslaved people being worked to death,” Dr. Auslander said.
The upper South, Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia, turned to the breeding of human beings who were sold down South. Families have deep links to the upper southern region because replacement people were literally sold down the river.
When the Civil War started, the four million enslaved people in the U.S. were the greatest concentration of capital, worth more than railway stock and every other form of property.
There were records and names of enslaved people in wills when slave owners died. In their wills, they listed the names of enslaved people given to other family members and relatives; some were sold on the steps of the DeKalb County Courthouse.
This forest was a place of terror, torture, and killings. There are many unmarked burial sites associated with the plantation slavery era. But this area is also a place of enormous faith. Almost immediately after emancipation, independent Black churches were set up by newly freed people.
Churches organized quickly, and later educational institutions. “They believed we needed to be educated about where we’ve come from, where we were going and where we are now. The church was a place of aspiration and hope,” Rev. Williams said.
Creeks were important, including Intrenchment Creek as sites of baptism, and even during slavery times, Blacks would steal away to the creeks for worship services.
George Key owned the southern part of the old Atlanta prison farmland. In 1860 there were 19 enslaved people held on his plot and three slave dwellings that have not been found yet.
James Moore, in 1850, owned the northern part of the Atlanta prison farm, and he had six enslaved people.
After 1870 freed slaves returned to the Panthersville area where they once worked the fields, and many found their lost relatives. Many formerly enslaved people worked as sharecroppers who had to give the majority of their crops to the white landowners. They saved up money and bought land when they could, and their money went to education for their children.
THE RE ENSLAVEMENT OF BLACK PEOPLE
The 13th amendment allowed for an exception to re-enslaved African Americans in the case of criminal convictions and was used throughout the South.
Minor violations that criminalized Black people fed the industrial prison system with convicts and free labor. There were convict lease systems and other aspects of a rapidly growing agricultural prison industrial system centered on coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, and farm plantations. The railroad industry depended on enslaved people at Lookout Mountain. The violent penal system was linked to the rise of American imperialism.
The technology of waterboarding was developed in Georgia. Convicts were beaten, and this kept them from working for days. But after waterboarding was invented, convicts could be back at work the same day.
“We are just now putting the pieces together of all these layers of violence that have been perpetrated on this earth, mother. We are hoping this saga and legacy of violence can end now. We have just touched the tip of the iceberg even in terms of the Prison Farm. We’re just touching the surface in understanding there might be and probably are unmarked burial sites right across from us right now [in the Weelaunee Forest],” Mekko Chebon Kernell, traditional chief and spiritual leader with the Helvpe Ceremonial Grounds, said.
POLLUTION AND ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM IN SOUTH DeKALB COUNTY
Dr. Jacqueline Echols, Board President of the South River Watershed Alliance (SRWA), speaks out on pollution and environmental racism.
The Alliance has been in a legal fight for years over water pollution from the combined sewage system that carries sanitary sewage and stormwater in the same pipe.
A deal was struck in1996 with historically black communities around the old Atlanta Braves stadium that if they submitted to additional pollution to ensure that folks visiting the city during the Olympics were not inundated with combined sewage flooding the streets. The city promised to fix the sewer system in their communities later. The sewage system downtown was fixed but not in the historically black neighborhood as promised.
The combined sewer system works fine as long as it does not rain. When it rains more than 1/10 of an inch, the sewer system fills up and spills over into neighborhoods and goes into Intrenchment Creek and the South River. The only way to fix that is to put sewage in one pipe and stormwater in another.
DeKalb County has a sanitary sewer system not mixed with stormwater. But it has been discharging into the South River since 1960. All of this is under the watchful eye of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Both are complicit in condoning this kind of pollution and contamination into black and vulnerable communities.
“This is environmental racism. With Black people getting into local governments of power, I thought this would change, but it hasn’t,” Dr. Echols concluded.
NATIVE PEOPLE TALK ABOUT WHAT “LAND BACK” MEANS
from left to right: Mekko Chebon Kernell, Prof. Laura Harjo, Prof. Craig Womack, Dr. Mark Auslander, Dr. Daniel Wildcat and Rev. Avis Williams
When Indigenous people talk about “Land Back,” that does not mean a real estate deal of buying land or the government giving native people some of their lands back.
“Land Back is about rematriation. It’s about connecting ourselves again to this earth mother, and the land is her. Rematriation is about our reconnection to a place like the forest protectors are doing right here.
It’s about returning to a deeply respectful, honoring relationship with Mother Earth. The people to lead that discussion is the indigenous people of the planet because they don’t hold the view of the settler colonizers,” Dr. Daniel Wildcat, a Yuchi Muscogee, of Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas, said.
“Mother Earth is calling us back because we have wandered away. She is calling us to come back into a relationship to fight injustice to the river and the forest. Come back to the Earth that nurtures and sustains us,” Rev. Williams said.
“Land back is a way of knowing the world and being a good steward of the land. When I think about Black folks who have lived on this land and been in good conversation with it, they have carried out land back in our stead. The forest protectors, they’re carrying out land back in our stead. The forest protectors are expressions of indigenous feminism. They are inclusive, and they’re doing the work of rematriating the forest,” Laura Harjo, a feminist scholar and community planner from the University of Oklahoma, said.
“When we say land back, we have to return to a communal understanding of harmony and existence that is the earth. This Earth Mother has been faithful in providing generation after generation everything that the human species needs and other species need for survival.
The human species has continued to perpetrate violence on this entity – Mother Earth.
When we think about land back, it is returning to the feminine entity of this earth mother, the feminine entity we find even in ourselves, even as someone who identifies as a male person, that we are to have harmonious relationships that are not violent.
We want to return to an era of wellness; when we only take what we need, we see the earth as one who nurtures us, who provides for us, and we are to be respectful with the gifts we receive.
I don’t ever talk fatalistically, but what you’re seeing before you right now, we are on the brink of extinction. If we don’t find a way to exist without the threat of violence,” Mekko Chebon Kernell, said.
WRAP UP THOUGHTS
DR. AUSLANDER SPEAKS ON RESISTANCE
We have talked about how you resist without being defined by dominant powers of fascism, patriarchy, homophobia, and racism.
There are resistance models: for example, the forest defenders refuse to be defined by the expectations of a dominant police state partly because they are funny, wild, and playful, and they are in your face and hard to classify. They build tree houses [in the forest] that are playful and childlike but provide vantage points [to see any destruction in the forest].
It’s a different kind of resistance from the centuries-old rage of white, patriarchal, racist, oppressive men like those that stormed the Capitol on January 6.
A resistance that doesn’t have joy at its heart is doomed to reproduce the horrors of a death-dealing, capitalist economy.
KERNELL SPEAKS ON CONTINUING CONVERSATIONS WITH EACH OTHER
How do you get a community to want to prevent people from being harmed and nature from being damaged? I don’t know how to teach that. I thought that cataclysmic events in the past few years would open our eyes, and we would have compassion, but look where we are.
I hope that just by sharing right now, there will be more momentum. We are having more Muscogee people who are offering leadership and guidance. We have exponentially grown our voices already.
What if we have five thousand Muscogee here and five thousand non Muscogee people here and then we have 500 nations standing here beside us. We are just at the beginning of our thinking together. We will continue this relationship with each other.
THE FUTURE TO BE DETERMINED BY YOU
Hope for the forest lies in the many Native people, community people, the young forest protector occupying the forest, the South River Alliance lawsuit, and everyone who wants to preserve and protect the forest from developers, movie studios, and Cop City. The resistance continues and grows more substantial.
Written and Photos by Gloria Tatum
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