Will confirmation of alleged tribal burial sites end the Okefenokee mine for good?

It wasn’t just another government memorandum, one of hundreds to be tossed into the vast bureaucracy to act on, or tossed in a digital trash can, to be forgotten. This memo was epic. This memo was a rare assurance of equal treatment for Indigenous people in Georgia.

The January 26, 2021, memo from the Biden administration directed federal agencies to have “robust” consultation with Native American tribes regarding federal policies that have tribal implications.

The Army Corps of Engineers not only said they got the memo (from Biden), they took action. On June 3, the Corps effectively halted, for the time being, planned work for a titanium mine along the St. Marys River near Okefenokee Swamp because tribal parties had not been properly consulted on the impact of the mine.

There are Native American cemeteries in the area and no one seemed interested in knowing where. So far.

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 ranging from birds to alligators and black bears.

Under the Biden administration, the Army Corps regained jurisdictional control of the Okefenokee and said Twin Pines Minerals must restart the licensing process. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation, among other tribes, was to be included in the discussion of these permits.

“There are burials all around this area, of course we want to be consulted,” said Marian McCormick, senior chief of the Lower Muscogee Creek Tribe, who lives in Wigham, Georgia. “I hope we can stop them permanently. The Creek Indians and the Muscogee are connected to the land by the bones of our ancestors and we don’t want them to be disturbed. The miners are going to be in areas where they don’t have no right to be.

It took months for the Corps to act on Biden’s memo, but it acted decisively.

“It should have been done sooner and it wasn’t,” said Nealie McCormick, president of the Council on American Indian Concerns, a state agency. “The word ‘robust’ was in (Biden’s) executive order in 2021 and it hasn’t been implemented. The senator (Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff) had to jump in there and do something. The Corps is used to doing these kinds of consultations with the tribes, so I don’t know what happened.

A spokesperson for the Army Corps of Engineers said the agency held monthly Okefenokee reviews with Native American tribes before Trump ended oversight of the Corps.

This is not the first time that political headwinds have blown over Native American cultural ties in Georgia.

In 1997 and again in 2017, tribes attempted to advance casinos in northern Georgia. But five years ago, then-Gov. Nathan Deal said he was unwilling to cede local tax control to tribes operating casinos on federal lands if the Georgia legislature allowed Class III gambling in the state.

Now there’s the nation’s rival political parties tussle over the Okefenokee with the Muscogee Creek Nation caught in the middle.

Even with Biden’s memo citing the primary reason for the mining hurdle, it seems more attention is being paid to Okefenokee’s tourism and outdoor recreation donations than culture. natives.

In his opening remarks to reporters on June 6, after the Army Corps ordered permits to restart, Ossoff focused on tourism, outdoor recreation, and endangered species while discussing of the recent federal government intervention.

Later on the Zoom call with reporters, Ossoff responded to a question about the tribe saying, “Okefenokee is sacred ground for the Muskogee Creek Nation. And indeed, it is a valuable natural resource enjoyed by people in our state and across the country. And it has been a pleasure to work alongside tribal leaders as part of this broad coalition to protect the Okefenokee.

It is much more than a vacation spot for the native tribes. RaeLynn Butler, head of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s Historic and Cultural Preservation Department in Oklahoma, said her people call the Okefenokee Swamp “the most wonderful place on earth.”

Twin Pines has submitted applications to the Georgia Division of Environmental Protection for five state permits for a proposed mine within a few miles of this wonderful place.

Mining would cover hundreds of acres and could disrupt burial sites, Butler said.

“A survey hasn’t really been done to determine where the cultural venues might be,” Butler said. “We know there’s a lot of documented history of our tribes in Okefenokee, but we were abducted 180 years ago and we don’t know exactly where those (burial) locations are.

“That’s why the law requires agencies to carry out cultural resource surveys and archaeologists to go into the field, sometimes with tribal partners, to scour the land and do tests to see where the cultural sites in the field. This is the essential part of bringing the Okefenokee back under the jurisdiction of the Corps. We’re going to need those kinds of investigations.

What must be infuriating for the tribes is that it took a directive from the White House to stop the potential bulldozer of their burial grounds.

Could the burial grounds provide a once-and-for-all barrier to mining near Okefenokee?

According to an army corps spokesperson, “the corps complies with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.”

Section 106 requires that each federal agency to identify and assess the effects its actions may have on historic buildings. Under Section 106, each federal agency must consider the opinions and concerns of the public regarding historic preservation issues when making final decisions about the project.

Twin Pines wants to mine titanium in the swamp for its consumer paint pigment, military equipment and medical technology markets. Titanium is a vital mineral for national security, according to the US Geological Survey.

In a statement at the start of the permitting process, Twin Pines said: “We also look forward to protecting the Okefenokee using highly advanced and responsible mining methods and providing hundreds of well-paying jobs for locals. of Charlton County and South Georgia.”

Residents in and around the proposed site and other Okefenokee lovers aren’t so sure that Twin Pines can protect the area’s groundwater.

For now, the Biden memo offers something of a protective shield around the Okefenokee and cultural sites.

Will this protection be removed with the next Republican administration?

“I really hope this doesn’t become a political issue where things keep changing,” Butler said. “And I really don’t see it as a political issue now. We are just happy to see that we will be able to consult each other on this project.

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