Songs of the Forest: A “Re-matriation” Gathering in Weelaunee (South River) Forest

My collaborator Rev. Avis Williams and I were delighted to be asked to participate in the recent April 22-23 gathering/conference/songfest/happening/summit called, “Singing ourselves back together: Community in Weelaunee.” The event brought together a range of organizations and movements, united by shared, urgent concern over the fate of the “South River Forest zone” around the headwaters of the South River watershed, in south Atlanta and unincorporated southwestern DeKalb County, Georgia. The gathering centered on the hopes of Mvskoke (Muscogee Creek) to engage in a “re-matriation” process, reconnecting to the ancestral homelands of the Muscogee peoples, including this wooded and greenspace terrain.

The “South River Forest” is in many respects an aspirational concept, anchored in an earlier Atlanta city vision plan for contiguous greenspace, including wooded acreage, of about 3,500 acres spanning southwestern DeKalb county and southeastern Fulton county. This zone, which has a long history of landfill, waste disposal, and prison labor sites, could become a beautiful emerald necklace of wooded land, recreation areas, and open fields. Recently, activists and Muscogee Creek ceremonialists have termed this greenspace zone the “Weelaunee” (Ouelvnv), in light of an early history of this indigenous term for the South river, which I reviewed in a previous post.

The threats to the forest and associated greenspace are both long-term and immediate. As emphasized by the South River Watershed Alliance, extensive sewage and toxic run-off impacts the health of Intrenchment Creek and other tributaries of the South River, sometimes reckoned the country’s fourth most endangered river. A core section of the wooded zone has been slated for demolition by the Atlanta Police Foundation, which intends to construct a large training facility for multiple police forces, specializing, opponents have charged in urban paramilitary operations. Dubbed “Cop City” by activists, the proposed training facility is opposed by a coalition of community organizers who seek to pressure the city of Atlanta to suspend or cancel the project.

The South River Watershed Alliance also seeks to prevent a proposed land swap by the private developer Blackhall studios, the largest film production site in the Southeast, which would lead to the deforestation and flattening of Intrenchment Creek Park. They also oppose the construction by Blackhall of more soundstage facilities downstream along the South River. More broadly, the Alliance and its allies are demanding serious investment by DeKalb County and the business community in environmental justice for the entire South River watershed region.

Ceremonial Returns

Creek ceremonialists in November 2021 gathered in this same space, the Intrenchment Creek Trailhead, around a sacred fire, to perform a stomp dance that reproduced rhythms heard and sensed in these forest land centuries ago. Now, Creek and allied scholars and community organizers joined with the forest defenders to consider what a better world might look like, in the forest and beyond, and to re-establish bonds with this sacred space. Guided by friends in the Watershed Alliance and the forest defenders, we took many walks through the forest, including to an old venerable oak, a possible ceremonial gathering site in days of old, which the Muscogee Creek participants named “Puse” (Grandmother).

The Grandmother (Puse) Tree

Tresa Gouge (of the Redbird Smith Ceremonial Grounds in Sequoyah County, Oklahoma) taught those in attendance how to make cedar-based medicine bundles. Dr. Craig Womack, emeritus professor of English and Native American Studies at nearby Emory University, who is Muscogee Creek and a gifted musician, sang Muscogee songs, including laments performed during the Trail of Tears. The first evening, Creek attendees performed stomp dances in the same circle they had gathered in, back in November, reconnecting with the earth and with ancestral presences.

Indigenous Scholarship

The two day event moved back and forth across many modalities, part academic-ish conference, part political rally, part ceremonial performance. We pondered the meanings of “#LandBack” and “re-matriation.” Mekko (traditional chief and spiritual leader ) Chebon Kernell, associated with the Helvpe Ceremonial Grounds, reflected upon the vital necessity of an environmental Indigenous ethic that resists racism, extractive colonial economies and paramilitary law enforcement. Noted Indigenous feminist scholar and community planner Laura Harjo (University of Oklahoma), author of Spiral to the Stars: Mvskoke Tools of Futurity,” facilitated a workshop in which she invited us to dream collectively and individually about our deepest wishes for the future of the forest, as a place of learning, healing, and revived collective care. Drawing and writing on large pieces of paper brought us together in community as we seriously and playfully considered new models for the Intrenchment Creek trailhead and the forested land that is threatened by the planned police training facility. Rev. Dr. Avis Wiliams, who grew up in the African American community of Covington, about 35 miles from the forest, reflected on the ways in which African Americans–during the two centuries following Native removal–have stewarded the lands left behind by Muskogee Creek, with whom Black folks in Georgia continue to sense deep kinship. Preschoolers from Atlanta’s Highlander School, led by the remarkable Rukia Rogers, created lovely pictures about the forest and the dangers it faces, presented as gifts to participants.

Craig Womack and Laura Harjo introduce the planning workshop

Dr. Daniel Wildcat (Yuchi, Muscogee) of Haskell Indian Nations University (HINU) in Lawrence, Kansas, whose book “Red Alert! Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge ” my Boston University students and I recently read, took us on a fascinating journey through foundational principles in Indigenous environmental philosophy. Certain formative precepts, he emphasized, are embodied and enacted through everyday practice: respect yourself, honor yourselves, embody the very change you wish to see in the world, live not in fear but with sensed respect for the power of place and the dynamic reciprocal relations between humans and and our more-than-human relatives, including plants and animals. How, he asked, do we move beyond a “fear-based” ontology, beyond commodified capitalist and alienated relationships with nature and other people, towards an orientation towards the world that is based on gifts, gratitude, and generosity towards all beings? How do we learn not to see the world as made up of resources that are to be extracted and consumed, but as constituted as a living matrix of dynamic relationships among life-giving forces and diverse forms consciousness and energy, that mutually enrich one another? How do we honor the forest as our elder teacher, and reciprocally express our responsibilities to care for the gifts of the forest and life-giving waters, here and everywhere?

Mekko Chebon Kernell at the Grandmother tree (Puce)

Up in the Canopy

Some of the most memorable encounters during our time in Weelaunee were with the forest defenders, many of whom are occupying forested spaces that are threatened with bulldozers and clear-cutting plans by the Atlanta Police Foundation, as a prelude to constructing the planned police training facility. These activists, living communally in the forest, enact the principles articulated by Daniel Wildcat, embodying, in ways large and small, the changes they wish to see in the world. Some reside for days at a time up in the canopy, in small treehouses lashed to the tree crowns, like latter-day pirates in crows’ nests keeping an eagle eye open for danger, even as they revel in intimate proximity to squirrels, birds, and other citizens of the forest. The defenders are painfully aware of the irony that “Cop City” is slated to be built on the grounds of one of south Atlanta’s notorious prison farms, where so many convicts suffered unjust imprisonment, brutal physical punishment, and solitary confinement from the 1920s into the 1960s and beyond.

Map of the proposed South River Forest, suspended between two trees

A former activist encampment, just up the hill from the Grandmother Oak, sports a beautiful contour drawing of the South River Forest, suspended between two trees. An enigmatic memorial sculpture consists of poles arranged in a pyramid, that might recall an indigenous home or the sacred mounds of Mississippian civilization. Playful assemblages abound. I was especially struck by a stone fragment on which is inscribed the word “Virgil,” evidently from the disposed facade of the old Carnegie Atlanta Public Library, positioned along a significant forest path. This is I took to be a clever allusion to the opening sequence of Dante’s Divine Comedy, as the narrator wanders lost in the forest, until he encounters Virgil, ready to serve as guide on his first journey towards knowledge of the cosmos. (To be sure, these forest defenders don’t share the classical European understanding of forests as sites of moral confusion: rather, for them, the forest is itself a generative site of wisdom and enlightenment.)

Enslavement Histories

These forest trees are also witness to older tragedies. Muscogee Creek people were expelled from millions of acres in the US Southeast in the early decades of the 19th century. As Rev. Avis and I noted in our remarks Saturday morning, the lands of the proposed South River Forest were stolen from Muscogee people and distributed to white settlers in the Fourth Georgia land lottery of 1821, which made available land lots of 202.5 acres. Many of these white settlers established slave-based plantations on which cotton and other crops were produced through slave labor. Through archival research, we have been able to identify by name, as of this writing, at least 35 enslaved persons held on these lands, across about 12 plantations, from the 1840s until 1865. In a moving ceremony on Saturday morning, a group of us were able to read these names aloud, and pay witness to the lives of these individuals, whose stories have for far too long been relegated to the shadows.

1860 Slave Schedule. The year before his death, Lochlin Johnson owned 11 slaves residing in 3 dwellings (near South River/Conley Creek confluence)

We are less certain of the specific histories on these lands of enslaved African and African-descended peoples, held as human property by Lower Creek slaveowners, during the period from the mid-18th century until the 1820s, when Creek were forced off of these ancestral homelands. The most famous, or infamous, Creek-owned slave-based plantation in Georgia was Chief William McIntosh’s plantation Acorn Bluff [Lockchau Talofau] in present day Carroll county, Georgia ( a site now known as the McIntosh Reserve park). This is the site where McIntosh was executed in 1825 by a Creek warrior squad for having signed the Treaty of Indian Springs, at another property of his, in Butts County). Numerous enslaved people owned by Chief McIntosh and his associates were confiscated by the attacking forces, and then later distributed, under terms of the Treaty of Washington, to McIntosh’s heirs. These enslaved persons were moved west after 1827, to Fort Gibson and then deeper into the Arkansas Valley’s Indian Territory, later known as Oklahoma.

Rev. Avis and I touched on the fascinating story of Sarah Davis (1799-1886), as reconstructed by Gary Zellar in his book African Creeks: Estelvste and the Creek Nation. She was as at one point owned by the daughter of William McIntosh, Rebecca McIntosh, who in 1831 married Benjamin Hawkins, an educated, “mixed-blood” Creek and associate of Sam Houston. After Chief McIntosh was executed by Creek warriors in 1825, the enslaved Sarah was part of the forced emigration party led by Ben Hawkins and John Sells to Arkansas Indian Territory in 1830.

When Rebeca Hawkins left Indian Territory for Texas, she sold Sarah to her brother Daniel Newnan (D.N.) McIntosh, who later served as a colonel in the Confederate States Army. Sarah worked as an enslaved domestic servant for him, and around 1853 purchased her freedom and became a free African Creek merchant who lived in the Creek Agency settlement, west of present day Muskogee before (and after) the Civil War. She ran an inn that served meals and was a major force in the community. Her grandson was Joseph Davison, an important Creek African Freedman political leader. Many of their descendants continue to reside in the Muscogee area and elsewhere in Oklahoma.

Sarah Davis and many other members of her family are buried in the Old Creek Agency cemetery near Muscogee OK, in which an estimated 1,000 African Creek individuals are interred. The cemetery, on private land, is currently unavailable to visits by loved ones and descendants. We noted that as we honor the endangered South River forest, a site of so much tragedy, we should also reflect upon that distant forested cemetery in Oklahoma, which remains a site of great injustice, compounded by the fact that most Freedmen descendants were in the 1970s stripped of tribal citizenship and remain legally outside of the Muscogee Creek Nation (MCN).

Tragedy and Hope

The South River (Weelaunee) Forest and the associated South River watershed has seen multiple injustices across the generations, including decades of enslavement and post-slavery sharecropping, as well as a convict lease system that Douglas A. Blackmon has aptly termed “slavery by another name.” We are well aware that the forest zone almost certainly contains unmarked graves of those who died on plantations during slavery times and on multiple prison labor farms in the region across the 20th century. A little further downstream, the Flat Rock African American community emerged after the Civil War as a remarkable site of black economic opportunity, religious faith, and cultural expressiveness. (I urge everyone to see a first rate exhibition on this community at the DeKalb History Center in downtown Decatur). Yet, as we were reminded by Dr. Jacqueline Echols, President of the Board of the South River Watershed Alliance, the predominantly black and brown households of south DeKalb County, who reside within the South River watershed, remain particularly at risk from toxic sewage contamination of the river system, due primarily to storm water run off. A flawed Consent Decree between the EPA, the Department of Justice and DeKalb County has failed to achieve the goals set for in the Clean Water Act, and is currently subject to litigation by the Alliance.

Yet, for all these important sober reminders, the dominant tenor of the two day gathering in Weelaunee was exultation and optimism. It was delightful to meet so many of the Forest Defenders, who each day and night are putting their bodies on the line to safeguard this beautiful, fragile ecosystem. Volunteers (coordinated in part by Christine Ristaino of Emory) organized and served delicious, healthy food throughout the two days. The Mvskoke songs and dances, honoring the power of places from which Indigenous peoples had been excluded for two centuries, brought tears of joy to many eyes.

For me and Rev. Avis, the most memorable moment of the gathering came during the final panel, when Craig Womack reflected on the profound injustices committed against the Mvskoke Estelvste, the African Creek Freedmen who are descended, in many instances, from persons of African descent who had been enslaved by the Creek slave-owning elites in Alabama, Georgia, and Indian Territory. African Creek Freedmen and their descendants were guaranteed perpetual citizenship in the Creek nation under the terms of the 1866 Treaty through which the Muscogee Creek Nation, which had been allied to the Confederacy during the Civil War, was re-admitted into the United States. Yet, the Freedmen (descendants of those identified as Creek “Freedmen” in the early 20th century Dawes roll census) were deprived for tribal citizenship in the late 1970s. Craig spoke of this de-citizenship process as the lowest point in all of Creek history, a tragic and foolish decision that has caused immeasurable human suffering during the past four decades. Among other things, as he noted, de-citizenship has deprived African Creek Freedmen of access to tribal-funded medical care and higher education. Members of the Muscogee Creek Indian Freedmen Band, listening to the proceedings digitally from a great distance, were profoundly moved by Craig’s unconditional and compassionate statement of solidarity.

Perhaps, at a future gathering in this beautiful and imperiled forest, representatives of the Muscogee Creek Freedmen will join with their Mvskoke brothers and sisters, the forest defenders, and their many allies, in shared celebration and remembrance, reflecting on all that these trees have seen and all that might emerge here in the future. Attuned to the healing currents of wind and water, the gentle swaying of the trees, the musicality of the birds, we might raise our voices together. And in that way, we just might be able, at long last, to sing ourselves back together.

Note: Some of the April 22-23 presentations are audible on a loop through WRFG Atlanta 89.3 FM:


For Further Reading

Mark Auslander and Avis Williams. Along the Ulcofauhatche: Of Sorrow Songs and “Dried Indian Creek” Southern Spaces, 18 February 2022.

Laura Harjo. “Spiral to the Stars: Mvskoke Tools of Futurity,” University of Arizon Press. 2019

Daniel Wildcat. “Red Alert! Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge ” Fulcrum Publishing, 2009.

Craig Womack. Aestheticizing a Political Debate: Can the Creek Confederacy Be Sung Back Together? Southern Spaces. 2007.

Gary Zellar, African Creeks: Estelvste and the Creek Nation. University of Oklahoma Press 2007 (2021)

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