Preserving our past, protecting our present, planning for the future
Strengthen their voices by saying their names
story by Lisa Mayfield Spence
photos by Christopher Smith
Though her path to the Ocmulgee National Historical Park was somewhat circuitous, the experience Tracie Revis has gained in her many positions serving Native American populations across the country naturally prepared her for a pilgrimage to Middle Georgia’s sacred regions along the Ocmulgee River. Today, Revis has returned to her ancestral roots and taken a position as director of advocacy for the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative (ONPPI).
When Native Americans introduce themselves, it is usually in the traditional manner, in their own language, saying their name and where they are from, Revis explained.
“I am Yuchi and Muscogee (Creek),” she said, in greeting. “I am of the Wolf Clan and from the Polecat Ceremonial Ground.”
But for Revis, coming to Macon is something of a homecoming.
“Prior to the various removals of my ancestors, the Ocmulgee River was home to several of the lower Creeks,” she said. “My Yuchi community lived along this river and drank from this water; they fished from this water and protected this water. … My family was part of the effort in the 1970s to bring a tribal voice to the Ocmulgee Mounds.”
Her aunt, whose photo hangs on the wall in the park’s visitor center, served as cultural interpreter here. Another aunt and uncle worked at the park while in college. Others, whose photos adorn the visitor center’s walls, are friends and relatives Revis recognizes from Oklahoma.
“It’s like walking into a family living room and seeing my relatives’ photos on the wall,” she said. “This is home.”
But even more than the photos, she said, are the songs that were sung and the language that was spoken: “If sounds are just vibrations, then I believe those vibrations are still there at Ocmulgee. It is nice to be at a place where our people had peace.”
Revis’ entire career has been dedicated to serving Indian Country. “I am of mixed blood,” she explained. Her father is Native American while her mother is non-Native. While she lived all over the country while growing up, it was to her cultural heritage that Revis felt most connected: “I was raised around Indian ceremonies; I loved my culture and loved the lessons that I learned just growing up Native.”
These early experiences naturally influenced her career choices.
“I went to school determined to fight for Indian children and to give them a voice,” Revis said.
Her first professional position was in Los Angeles, home to the second largest urban Indian community in the nation, where she served as director for a non-profit after-school program that received funding from Indian Health Services (IHS). Here, Revis worked hard to advocate for children whose cultural identities were becoming lost in a “sea of ethnicities.” This position propelled her toward more education so she could help more Native Americans on a larger scale.
Returning to Oklahoma to pursue a graduate degree, Revis focused on organizational development, which allowed her to work on various projects and grants centered on the welfare and economic stability of Indian Country. Following the completion of her graduate degree, Revis attended law school, but her law studies were interrupted by a cancer diagnosis.
“Unfortunately, as a student, I didn’t have insurance and was forced to utilize Indian Health Services,” Revis said.
Initially denied treatment, she finally began radiation treatments, but was ostracized for being a patient of IHS and on many occasions asked to produce her “Indian papers.”
“It was ludicrous to me that as a 27-year-old educated woman, I was having to prove to this provider that I needed the treatment and that I deserved it,” Revis said.
Her cancer went into remission, but she was diagnosed once again, and was told by her oncologist that she was dying and could not go back to school.
“Law school was my dream,” she said. “I was the first in my family to have achieved this level.”
She asked her doctor if she could go back to school and do the radiation treatments there, and he agreed. She returned to law school and attended the first eight weeks of classes while undergoing daily radiation therapy. By October of that year, she was in remission again.
At the end of her first year of law school, Revis was awarded the prestigious Morris K. Udall Native American Congressional Internship; only 12 recipients are selected annually. Revis was placed in Congressman Raul Grijalva’s office to serve, and while working as a congressional staffer, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act was up for re-authorization. She was asked to submit testimony about her personal cancer experience.
During her third year of law school, Revis interned for her tribe in the legislative branch. Following graduation, she moved home and continued to work for the tribe and throughout various areas of Indian Country.
Revis was working as gaming commissioner for the tribe in California when Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief David Hill called her and asked if she wanted to come back to Oklahoma and work for the tribe full time.
“I have known Chief Hill and his family for a long time and had immense respect for him, so I agreed,” she said.
Revis was nominated and confirmed by the legislative branch and named acting secretary of housing and tribal administrator.
“Regardless of how I got here, my entire career and passion has been to help give a voice to those who have been overlooked,” Revis said.
Whether she is advocating for ONPPI or helping Chief Hill advance his agenda, “I never want to look back and see that I didn’t make an effort,” Revis said.
The work Revis is doing for ONPPI now is along the same vein.
“My family has a history of working at the mounds,” she said. “If we can help strengthen the voice of my ancestors at the park and help to preserve the land by making sure the tribe has a voice when decisions are made, then I will be satisfied.”
The need for a director of advocacy was realized as the efforts of ONPPI progressed and there was an increased awareness that it would be beneficial to have a tribal partner in Macon.
“While the tribe in Oklahoma has been working alongside the partnership, it has been difficult as we are not here on site,” Revis said. “While I was at the Nation, I took several trips to the Southeast working on Chief Hill’s administrative goals and learning about what would be needed. I think having tribal partners here, locally, is a win-win for everyone.”
Revis’ position as director of advocacy allows her to serve as a liaison in facilitating partnerships, among other tasks: “At the moment, I’m meeting with civic groups and others in Macon who are passionate about helping.”
One of the more significant conversations Revis has had since relocating to Georgia has been focused on the ecology of the Ocmulgee region: the conservation of topsoil in culturally significant areas and the importance of river cane to the culture.
Protecting the rare river cane — a species of giant cane (Arundinaria gigantea) used to make arrows, baskets and more — is currently found at several locations within the park.
“Historically, vast brakes of giant cane could be found along Southeastern rivers, but these have declined substantially in recent years,” Revis said. “For many years, the Ocmulgee floodplain in the area of the park expansion and Bond Swamp was known for having the last, best remnants of giant cane brakes anywhere.”
Through conversations with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and local entities, everyone is working together to ensure that cultural preservation is taking place by appropriate means.
“When we involve all parties in the conversation, we can find workable solutions,” Revis said. “This is what true collaboration looks like. To quote a classic movie, I believe ‘this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.’ … The park already works with the Nation. These opportunities allow our stories to be told from a first-hand perspective.”
By working together, Revis said, “we are able to tell the stories of those that were here before Macon became Macon.
“I appreciate all that Macon is; but before it was a town, it was a town of my ancestors. We had a government and structure and life. By coming together as we are, we will be able to give a name back to what so many around Macon say is the ‘Indian Mounds.’ We will be able to name these people and not lump them into a generic all-encompassing group of people. Our Muscogee and Yuchi people deserve to be called by their names. I believe that we will be able to start telling stories in different ways around town and at the park.
“We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it and uncover the stories of the voices that have been silenced. I am excited to be a part of the team in Macon and am thankful that the National Park Service has been taking care of the Mounds to make sure that it remains strong, and we can continue to grow, learn and heal from its presence.”
Find more information at ocmulgeepark.org.