Muscogee (Creek) tribal members migrate to homelands 200 years after ancestors’ forced removal

Indigenous natives to so-called Atlanta return from Helvpe Ceremonial Grounds in Oklahoma for historic stomp dance ceremony in South River Forest, which is currently under threat of becoming a police militarization base known as “Cop City”.

This story and its accompanying photographic elements have been sanctioned and consented by Mekko Chebon Kernell on behalf of the Muscogee (Creek) community currently based in Helvpe Ceremonial Grounds in so-called Oklahoma. All photography by Atlanta-based photographer Jesse Pratt López. All photography was fully approved by the Muscogee (Creek) community represented in the article.

Members of the Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole tribes participate in a stomp dance in the South River Forest near Atlanta on Nov. 27. Photo credit: Jesse Pratt López / The Mainline, 2021.

MVSKOKE TERRITORY — On Sat., Nov. 27, tribal members of the Muscogee (Creek) Tribe currently based in the Helvpe Ceremonial Grounds of so-called Eastern Oklahoma returned to their ancestral homelands known as Atlanta. Forced removal and displacement of the tribe began in the region in 1821 through a series of treaties which led to a “melee of removal,” according to a recent interview by The Mainline with Helvpe Ceremonial Grounds Mekko Chebon Kernell and Dr. Craig Womack, Creek author and former professor of literature at Emory University. According to our sources, this migration is the first of its type since the forced removal of Muscogee (Creek) people from the lands, with many community members connecting with their ancestral homelands for the first time.

The Muscogee (Creek) community leaders of Oklahoma were joined by other first nation peoples from Alabama and Georgia to participate in cultural sharing and stomp dance ceremonies in the South River Forest located in unincorporated DeKalb County. The event was open to the public and the larger community in the metro area, with hundreds in attendance. The ceremonies were performed in Intrenchment Creek Park, which resides next to a plot of land known as the Old Atlanta Prison Farm. Both plots of land are currently under threat of further development, construction, and deforestation in long-standing battles in the city.

Participants from Oklahoma prepare to engage in cultural teachings and sharing with the Atlanta community. Photo credit: Jesse Pratt López / The Mainline, 2021.

On Sept. 8, the Atlanta City Council authorized a ground lease of 381 acres of the South River Forest, which is  largely considered the city’s greatest defense against climate change, to the Atlanta Police Foundation for the purposes of a police militarization facility which local organizers have dubbed “Cop City.” The agreement leases the acreage to the APF for $10 a year. After the legislation was introduced in council in early June, community members organized what became known as the “Stop Cop City” campaign, which became a widespread coalition within the city. A delegation of local organizers connected with the Muscogee (Creek) community and Helvpe Ceremonial Grounds members after the lease was authorized by the council.

Further, another plot of the land in the forest is under threat of construction by Blackhall Studios which could bulldoze 40 acres of forest. The deal was approved by the DeKalb commission in October 2020. DeKalb County and Blackhall Studios were hit with a legal challenge from the South River Watershed Alliance and other local environmental groups in February 2021. Sources have confirmed the case is still waiting in the Superior Court of DeKalb County with Judge Stacey K. Hydrick presiding, currently on the judge’s docket for Dec. 16.

Kernell explained to The Mainline that the stomp dance ceremony, cultural sharing, and community migration were only the beginning of what he hopes will be a long-term movement, recognizing the ongoing displacement of vulnerable communities in the area. The City of Atlanta currently ranks as having the largest racial wealth inequality gap in the country while Georgia ranks as having the fourth highest incarceration rate in the world.

A young child from Muscogee (Creek) community of Oklahoma adjusting her can shakers before performing a dance in the South River Forest on Nov. 27. Photo credit: Jesse Pratt López / The Mainline, 2021.

“We still have hopes for these lands, these territories that give life to the people,” Kernell told The Mainline. “My hope all along has been to build a better city, a better environment that all of us marginalized and displaced would have a say in what we build. When we think about the last sort of bastions of this type of environment, we don’t have much left in our country. We have not taken seriously the impact of continuing to rape this earth, and that’s environmentally speaking. There’s a social justice component to this as well, how we are impacted by further militarizing police forces. Until you’re a person who’s been unjustly harrassed, followed, and abused by the entities that are supposed to protect you, you really don’t know the feelings that come up. When we think about putting more weapons in the hands of an entity that can harm me, that’s disconcerting, especially when we think about the greater metropolitan area of Atlanta.”

Dr. Womack spoke to the significance of the recent stomp dance ceremony, reminiscing on his time at Emory University carrying the history of his ancestors as a Creek person in the Southeast.

Mekko Chebon Kernell of the Helvpe Muscogee (Creek) Ceremonial Grounds speaks to the crowd of nearly 500 people during the cultural activities in the South River Forest in Atlanta. Photo credit: Jesse Pratt López / The Mainline, 2021.

“I used to stand on that quad at Emory, and I could see in my mind so clearly a Creek square ground with the old heritage oak trees,” he remembers. “I could see where the fire would be. I could see people dancing. I could almost hear shell shakers and dancers when I stood in that quad. I don’t know if there was a Creek square ground there, but just the fact that Creek people were present there at one time was always on my mind. Whenever I had an opportunity to, I [would] sing one of our songs and speak a little bit in Creek. It was really moving to me, because I felt like I was returning something to that place that had been wrenched away from it and absent for 160 years. That was to the best of my limited ability, bringing it back there. So to extend this further to this dance and having Helvpe grounds out here … the meaning of it is just tremendous. It’s more than our minds are able to take in. To have those songs back happening in that place is just incredibly meaningful.”

Women of the Muscogee (Creek) communities in Oklahoma dance during the cultural activities in the South River Forest on Nov. 27. Photo credit: Jesse Pratt López / The Mainline, 2021.

Community members and organizers in Atlanta have told The Mainline they intend to continue building with indigenous communities in the ongoing land protection battles in the city.

“Our hope is to continue the work of education, the work of defending the Mother Earth, and educating marginalized communities of the greater City of Atlanta about the historical presence of Muscogee people and our common pursuit of justice for all people of color,” Chebon Kernell told The Mainline following the stomp dance ceremony event. “We also have hopes of establishing an indigenous group to officially help defend the environment and help educate other entities of the greater Atlanta area.”

We will continue to report on these stories and movement building as they develop.

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