The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Photo from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
It was not just another government memorandum, one of hundreds to be shuffled off into the vast bureaucracy, to be acted on, or cast into a digital dustbin, to be forgotten. This memo was epic. This memo was rare assurance of equal treatment for Indigenous people in Georgia.
The Jan. 26, 2021, memo from the Biden administration commanded federal agencies to have “robust” consultation with Native American tribes concerning federal policies that have tribal implications.
The Army Corps of Engineers not only said it got the (Biden) memo, it acted. On June 3, The Corps effectively shut down, for the time being, work planned for a titanium mine along the St. Marys River, near the Okefenokee Swamp, because tribal parties had not been consulted properly on the impact of the mine.
There are Native American cemeteries in the area and no one seemed interested to find out where. Until now.
The Okefenokee Swamp covers 438,000 acres in southeast Georgia and is the largest blackwater swamp in North America. It includes the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and the Okefenokee Wilderness and is home to a variety of animals from birds to alligators, and black bears.
Under the Biden administration, the Army Corps of Engineers regained jurisdictional control of the Okefenokee and said Twin Pines Minerals had to restart the permitting process. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation, among other tribes, had to be included in the discussion on those permits.
“There are burials all around that area, of course we want to be consulted,” said Marian McCormick, the principal Chief of the Lower Muscogee Creek Tribe, who lives in Whigham, Ga. “I hope we can permanently stop them. The Creek Indians and Muscogee are connected to the land through the bones of our ancestors and we do not want them disturbed. The mining people are going to be in areas they have no right to be in.”
It took months for the Corps to act on the Biden memo, but it did act decisively.
“It should have been done sooner and it wasn’t,” said Nealie McCormick, the chairman of the Council on American Indian Concerns, a state agency. “The word ‘robust’ was in the (Biden) executive order back in 2021 and it wasn’t acted on. The senator (Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff) had to leap in there and get something done. The Corps has a history of doing these kinds of consultations with tribes, so I don’t know what happened.”
A spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers said the agency had held monthly reviews on the Okefenokee with the American Indian tribes before then-President Donald Trump ended the Corps’ oversight.
It is not the first time political headwinds have blown around the cultural connections of Native Americans in Georgia.
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In 1997 and again in 2017, tribes tried to make headway for casinos in north Georgia. But five years ago, then-Gov. Nathan Deal said he was not willing to cede local control of taxes to the tribes operating casinos on federal land should the Georgia Legislature allow Class III Gaming in the state.
Now there is the tug-of-war of the country’s rival political parties over the Okefenokee with the Muscogee Creek Nation caught in the middle.
Even with the Biden memo citing the main reason for throwing up a barrier to the mining, there seems to be greater attention paid to the tourism and outdoor recreation gifts of the Okefenokee than the culture of Native people.
In his opening remarks to reporters June 6, after the Army Corps orders to restart permitting, Ossoff focused on tourism, outdoor recreation, and endangered species while discussing the federal government’s recent intervention.
Later, in the Zoom call with reporters, Ossoff responded to a question about the tribe saying, “Okefenokee is a sacred land for the Muscogee Creek Nation. And indeed, it is a precious natural resource beloved by folks across our state and across the country. And it has been a pleasure to work alongside tribal leadership as part of this broad coalition to protect the Okefenokee.”
It is much more than a vacation spot to the Native tribes. RaeLynn Butler, the manager for the Historic and Cultural Preservation Department of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma, said her people called the Okefenokee Swamp, “the most blissful place on earth.”
Twin Pines submitted applications to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division for five state permits for a proposed mine within a couple of miles of this blissful spot.
The mining would cover hundreds of acres and could disturb burial grounds, Butler said.
“A survey hasn’t really been done to determine where the cultural places could be,” Butler said. “We know that there’s a lot of documented history of our tribes at Okefenokee, but we have been removed 180 years and we don’t know exactly where those (burial) spots are.
“That’s why the law requires agencies to do cultural resource surveys and have archaeologists go into the field sometimes with tribal partners to walk the land and actually do some testing to see where cultural sites are on the land. That’s the critical part of having the Okefenokee back in jurisdiction of the Army Corps. It’s going to require those types of surveys.”
What must be galling to the tribes is it took a directive from the White House to stop the potential bulldozing of their burial plots.
Could the burial sites be the barrier, once and for all, to the mining near Okefenokee?
According to an Army Corps’ spokesman, “The Corps complies with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.”
Section 106 requires each federal agency to identify and assess the effects its actions may have on historic buildings. Under Section 106, each federal agency must consider public views and concerns about historic preservation issues when making final project decisions.
Twin Pines wants to extract titanium in the swamp for their markets in consumer paint pigments, military equipment, and medical technologies. Titanium is a mineral vital to national security, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
In a statement early on in the permitting process, Twin Pines said, “We also look forward to protecting the Okefenokee using highly advanced, responsible mining methods and providing hundreds of good paying jobs to the people of Charlton County and South Georgia.”
Residents in and around the proposed site and other Okefenokee lovers are not so sure Twin Pines can protect the ground water in the area.
For now, the Biden memo offers a protective shield, of sorts, around the Okefenokee and the cultural sites.
Does that protection get removed with the next Republican administration?
“I really hope it doesn’t become a political issue where things will continue to change,” Butler said. “And I really don’t see it as a political issue now. We’re just glad to see that we’re going to be able to consult on this project.”
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