The state of Georgia is home to about 100,000 American Indians, and while they make up a small percentage of the overall population, their cultural and historical significance is immense. To better represent the American Indian community in Georgia and address their unique challenges and concerns, the Georgia Council on American Indian Concerns was established in 1973. The council's mission is to promote the welfare and rights of American Indians in Georgia.
One of the driving forces behind the council's work is its chairman, Nealie McCormick. As the police chief of Pelham, Georgia, and a dedicated advocate for the American Indian community, McCormick, a Muscogee Creek Indian, has devoted his career to promoting a deeper understanding of their culture and traditions, as well as addressing the challenges they face.
State Affairs caught up with McCormick to ask him about his work with the council, the role it plays in advancing the welfare of American Indians in Georgia, and his vision for the future of the American Indian community.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You are a police chief by day. How did you get involved in the Georgia Council on American Indian Concerns?
I got into police work from a grant from the Georgia Commission of Indian Affairs, which is the agency before [the Georgia Council on American Indian Concerns]. They actually paid for my training and paid the city to employ me and send me through training back in 1978. I’ve been doing this for 45 years, and my start was with the Commission of Indian Affairs. I got directly involved in the council in later years and was appointed to the council by Governor Zell Miller in 1993. I was then elected chair in 1996.
What is the main role of the council?
The council originally was set up for grave protection, [recovering] buried objects, trying to prevent intentional/accidental desecration, advising the local governments, and repatriation of items. The council was combined with the Office of Indian Heritage, which was the successor to the Commission of Indian Affairs. The [Georgia Council on American Indian Concerns] is now the only agency specifically authorized to handle Indian affairs in Georgia. The council really is now the combination of the [Georgia Commission of Indian Affairs] and the Office of Indian Heritage.
We have three recognized tribes in Georgia, and we try to assist those with their economic development and other issues that may come up. We’ve been working with the Atlanta Braves on things that concern American Indians, and they’ve been listening to us. One of the good projects is the native American high school showcase. What they’ve done is, they've brought in 50 students from high schools across the United States for coaching from retired baseball players, along with scouts from different colleges to watch them play to give the kids a chance to move up and possibly earn scholarships for college. They’ve also helped fund some projects with the three tribes here in Georgia. One of them is funding the youth programs, where they're learning about the culture and about skills in traditions that are in danger of being lost, like basket making.
We work a lot with the different state agencies: child and children services to help protect our children (ones that may be removed from their environment), the Department of Family and Children's Service has worked up some regulations to help us in that standpoint, and criminal justice agencies. When there's a state agency that needs some advice on dealing with American Indians, we're the ones to come to.
We helped a lot of our people get jobs that get them back into the workforce. It's things like that. Every day is a little different. Different issues come up, and we handle those as they come.
You mentioned that there are three tribes. Has that grown or decreased over time? Since your time in 1993, were there more tribes then than there are now?
Now, the Indian population is growing because you have a lot of people that have moved in from other areas. There's a large population of Lakota Indians in the Atlanta area that has moved in. Then you've got other tribes from outside the state that people have moved in. I think Georgia now has probably 100,000 American Indians or more. So there are more Indians in Georgia now than there were before the removal. The tribes are left here. … There is the Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokee, the Georgia Tribal Council of Cherokee, and the Lower Muscogee Creek Tribe, which is located in South Georgia.
How does the council engage and collaborate with other organizations and stakeholders in Georgia, such as state and local governments, other advocacy groups, and the wider community?
Like cities, we give them advice on things or counties. A lot of times, we're interacting on disturbances: graves, picking up, looking for artifacts. And so we work with law enforcement, and we've worked closely with [Georgia Department of Natural Resources], law enforcement in the past to prevent these. One time we had a real problem in southern Georgia, where there was a group of people, I think they referred to themselves as the Kumbata militia, digging up graves. They would dig up the graves, cover it over with maybe plywood and dirt, and have a light run down there and steal artifacts from graves. So we've had to work with law enforcement to try to apprehend people doing those things.
Additionally, we helped facilitate [Gov. Brian Kemp’s Native American Day Proclamation]. And actually, it's grown into Native American Heritage Month.
There's currently a bill on the House floor, HB 43, relating to the Council on American Indian Concerns. Did the council play any role in that legislation?
Yeah, we're being consulted on that. That's actually a cleanup bill. It's updating the proper contact addresses for the individual tribes and ensuring that each tribe has got some representative on the council. That's the primary purpose.
How is the organization funded, and what are some of the challenges it faces in gaining adequate resources and support?
Funding has been a problem because we really have not had adequate funding even to support our meetings. We could really use full-time staff. And really, we got a little help last year that helped us out somewhat. We're getting more support now out of the General Assembly, but we're still in need of more funding to carry out our responsibilities.
Do members of the council have a heritage with American Indians within Georgia?
Yes. There's a member from each one of the tribes that are on the council. Five members have to be American Indians. There's also the scientists and anthropologists that are on the council: one physical anthropologist, one archaeologist, and one scientist that is familiar with Indians in general.
What is the most pressing issue that American Indians face today in Georgia, and what work does the council do to alleviate those concerns?
Well, there's, of course, opportunities for better education. One of the things we're trying to do is preserve language. We're working on that. A lot of the issues that you have in Georgia are national, too. Nationally, there's a big issue with domestic violence, missing Indigenous women. We're concerned about those things, too. We're trying to work to try to identify, do more identification on all that and see how we might support a better response to those. But maintaining existence is one of the big issues we've got in Georgia, holding things together. It's been really tough over the years, and there hasn't been a lot of support for the tribes or for Indian issues until actually fairly recently. We're finally seeing a change.
The council is really the bridge work between the tribes and the state. That's their voice dealing directly with the state. The government-to-government relationship between the state of Georgia and these tribes is through the council. The council is really important to the American Indians of Georgia because it's the only agency we have to deal directly with the Indians and the Indian tribes. It's our contact between state governments, other governments, and the Indian people themselves. It’s also that voice to let people know our concerns.
Historically, we're concerned about [the Okefenokee Swamp] in preserving the past. Environmentally [from mining], but also concerned about burials there. We've expressed to the other agencies the concerns of the American Indian community. It was successful in the 90s because DuPont was going to do mining there. We actually helped with that. The mining company DuPont decided not to proceed with the mining. Now that there [are] different companies, we're working to express our concerns about that.
Can you talk about some of the major accomplishments of the council?
We have recovered, over the years, a lot of artifacts and buried remains that would have been lost. Now, they're going to be repatriated. There's been a lot of projects over the years that we've been able to work with. When Brasstown Bald, the golf course that was built up there, they actually came upon Indian graves there. We were able to work out a plan to preserve those remains. We don't want anybody disturbing them. But we were able to find a solution that preserved the burial and also allowed them to build their golf course.
You mentioned that one of your major accomplishments has been recovering lost items that would have been otherwise lost to protect the heritage of American Indians. So how do you guys go about recovering those items?
Well, some of it has been recovered by law enforcement, and they were turned over to the council. And so we had a physical anthropologist check it and make sure that it was American Indian remains. Now we're transferring those things over to [Georgia Department of Natural Resources] to be part of the state's repatriation effort.
We had a lady who actually turned in an entire skeleton that was apparently her father’s, at some point back in the [1970s], who was working for the [Department of Transportation]. They had cut through an Indian mound, and he took the skeleton and actually kept it in a shed for about 40 years. He finally passed away, and the daughter turned that in to us so that we could repatriate.
Recently, there were some Indian remains that somebody had found in a file cabinet, which were turned over to the council. So that's going into the collection of [Georgia Department of Natural Resources].
These remains would have been totally lost. We've had drug raids where law enforcement had found complete skulls that somebody had stole from a mound that's going to be turned back over. Also, a museum had a skull and clothes, so they turned those remains over to us. We're just basically facilitating getting those, getting them into the process to be repatriated back to the tribes for reburial.
House passes HB 43
HB 43 passed unanimously in the Georgia House on Wednesday. It must now pass in the Georgia Senate and then be signed into law by the governor. This bill directly affects the Georgia Council on American Indian Concerns: revising membership of the Council on American Indian Concerns and revising addresses of American Indian Tribes.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Marvin Lim, D-Dist. 98, said, “One could see it as a cleanup bill. To me, it's far more than that. … Recognition and the ability to be found.”
Rep. Darlene Taylor, R-Dist. 173, another sponsor of the bill, echoed Lim, saying, “This bill, it helps them get recognized, basically. … It gives them standing.” Taylor is also the sponsor of HB 71 – the Okefenokee Protection Act. The Okefenokee Swamp is sacred for American Indians due to tribal burial grounds in the area. “It's a wilderness that needs to be kept pristine like it is now,” Taylor said. “There have been descendants of the tribes that were there many, many years ago, hundreds of years ago, and they don't want [the Okefenokee Swamp disturbed].
During last year’s legislative session, a bill similar to HB 43, HB 725, passed unanimously in the Georgia House but failed to be voted on in the Georgia Senate. Lim, a sponsor of HB 725, said, "We just didn't have enough time in the Senate to really shepherd it to its conclusion and bill signage." Lim and Taylor are optimistic about its chances at success this legislative cycle.
Rohan Movva is State Affairs’ intern writer in Georgia. A lifelong native of the Peach State, he’s proudly rooted in Georgia's rich culture and charm.
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