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Etowah Mounds, GA (Muscogee et. al.)


The Etowah Indian Mounds: History and Tribal Affiliation

The Etowah Indian Mounds in Cartersville, Georgia, represents the most intact Mississippian Culture site in the Southeast . Composed of six earthen mounds (three major ones), a plaza, village area, and defense pits on 54 acres of land bordering the Etowah River, the site was made a Georgia state park in 1953. The mounds’ history dates back to 950 A.D., when Mississippian Native Americans began building a large village there. Such groups of Native Americans were known as “Moundbuilders” because of the unique mounds they built in their settlements. Prominent, elite families lived atop the mounds, using the height for both religious prestige and economic security. Mounds had significance in religious ceremonies and were also used for burial. The village was surrounded by a moat on three sides and the Etowah River on the fourth, and enjoyed prosperity during its heyday, which occurred between 1000 and 1500 A.D. By the time Hernando DeSoto arrived in the area around 1540 A.D., the site had been abandoned after what appeared to have been an attack. Archaeological evidence at the site further corroborates the notion that the site was quickly abandoned during warfare. The descendants of these “Moundbuilders” are almost certainly the Muscogee-Creek nation, today found in Oklahoma. Another tribe, the Cherokee, flourished in the area as well, and gained control of the abandoned mounds shortly after DeSoto’s visit. This Indian control ended in 1838, when, the Indian removal to Oklahoma began and the Tumlin family of Georgia purchased the site from the State of Georgia. This family controlled the site for 125 years and served as good stewards of the property, allowing only one 1870 excavation of one mound, and protecting the mounds during Sherman’s march through Georgia (he reportedly asked to see them and enjoyed a private viewing ). After the state bought the land in 1953, the Tumlin family served as park officials until the mid-1990s and donated land to the park in 1994. Today the mounds are a state park overseen by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Scholars remain unable to determine the exact source of the word “Etowah” as used to describe both the mounds site and the river adjacent to it. Most likely, it comes from a mistranslation of the Creek “Italwa or Itawa,” which roughly means “high tower” or “city”. The State of Georgia recognizes the Muscogee-Creek Nation as the ancestral tribe of the Etowah Indian Mounds. The tribe, despite its physical remove from the site, maintains connections with it via primarily archaeological research. For the last three summers a team of Muscogee-Creek students has worked at the site with archaeologists Dr. Adam King of the University of South Carolina and Professor Kent Riley of West Texas State, using Ground Penetrating Radar tools to look inside the mounds without disturbing them. This scholarly work to preserve and document tribal heritage constitutes the Muscogee-Creek’s primary activities with the site in 2007.

Threatened by Urban Sprawl

The Etowah Indian Mounds are located about one hour North of downtown Atlanta, Georgia, and is easily accessible via major local highways. While the mounds’ location near Atlanta increases the rate of visitation by school groups and interested tourists, it poses a serious threat to the integrity of the mounds as both a sacred Native site and a beautiful state park. Atlanta, the largest metropolitan area in the Southeast, experiences a 2.4% population growth every year, in comparison to the national average of 1.1%. As local columnist John F. Sugg puts it, “With 5 million people already staggering from near-terminal gridlock and pollution, the current growth rate will double the population in a mere 17 years.” Like most Atlantans, Sugg identifies largely unchecked urban sprawl as the culprit for such rapid population increase: “Behind all of this is a real villain: growth. Our state only has one real industry: growth. We have one god: growth.” Indeed, Atlanta represents the least densely populated metropolitan area in the United States, and low-density development into forested and agricultural areas has led to the loss of an average of fifty acres of tree cover per day. Atlanta expands out, not up or down, and it does so at lightning speed. The Etowah Indian Mounds experiences profound disturbances to the integrity of their site as a result of such rapid, relatively unchecked development. The site’s location about 40 miles north of Atlanta (the average Atlantan’s commute is 32 miles per day ) marks a prime area for housing development. Moreover, most properties surrounding the Etowah Indian Mounds are either on the Etowah River or have a river view, and this increases their property value significantly. Such development and the promise of much more prompted the National Park Trust to designate the Etowah Indian Mounds and other nearby state parks (such as Sweetwater Creek State Park) as the most threatened state park system in the nation in their 2000 report “"Saving the Legacy of the National System of Parks". The report cites two general challenges to state parks: first, lack of funding for park land acquisition from either state or federal sources, and second, encroachment on parks by development. The Etowah Indian Mounds represents both challenges: sprawl continues to grow around the site and no new federal or state money has been allocated to purchase buffer properties. The Park Trust’s study found that if buffer land remains unprotected, parks like Etowah Indian Mounds may one day be surrounded on all sides by shopping malls, highways, and residential areas. "The solitude that you expect in a park now is being lost to high-rise buildings, second homes and lawnmower noise," states Paul Pritchard, president of the trust. Etowah had already experienced significant encroachment from housing developments in 2000. The three major mounds at the site, A, B, and C, each derive much of their historic and sacred significance from the view one sees from their tops. Mound A, especially, stands approximately six stories tall and enjoys an expansive view. Views of green spaces from the mounds’ summits are nearly as integral to the site as the mounds themselves. However, sprawl erodes these landscapes. Libby Bell, the site manager at the time of the study, said, “During the fall and winter all you can see are houses. They are big, beautiful homes, but I don't want to see them...and so many schools have been built around the site. More schools means more traffic and more people.” State and park officials identified buying buffer areas around the park as the only way to fully preserve the site’s integrity. Since then, development has continued, and park officials remain without resources to preserve the integrity of the site.

Can the Mounds be Protected?

Kenneth Akins, the current site manager, sees little hope of stopping sprawl’s effects on the site. In his words, “It don’t look good...Stopping sprawl in Atlanta is impossible.” Property across the Etowah River from the site recently sold for $50,000 per acre, and he sees no remotely imaginable way that the state of Georgia or private individuals would be able to buy a meaningful amount of this or other buffer land. Costs are simply prohibitive. Linda Moye, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ liaison with the Etowah Indian Mounds, declares, “We’ve done all we can do to protect the property.” Moye points out that the property surrounding the mounds is privately owned, and that this prevents the state from easily preserving buffer properties around the site. Indeed, as Ken Akins points out, the state of Georgia cannot compete with private developers in terms of land compensation for the families that own said properties. The land is simply too valuable for the State to afford. Joyce A. Bear, the Muscogee-Creek’s Cultural Preservation office staff and their liaison to the Etowah mounds, agrees with Akins and Moye about the infeasibility of fighting sprawl around the site. Though her tribe finds the encroachment of sprawl at Etowah distasteful, they choose to focus their activist efforts on sites that are more actively threatened than the mounds. She feels a strong connection to the site, especially since “there are still fish trap remnants in the river.” For Bear and her nation, these 54 acres represent a homeland. However, the site merits less activist attention from its descendants than others because of more serious threats to sacred sites in Georgia (namely, the Ocmulgee National Monument and Lamar Mounds). Despite the threats posed to Etowah Indian Mounds, the archaeological partnerships there between the nation and archaeologists represent a triumph for the Muscogee-Creek in terms of autonomy and involvement with their historical heritage. The Muscogee-Creek nonetheless feels the loss of the site’s integrity quite strongly. Bear quotes Will Rogers when discussing the site: “Best to preserve it now, cause they ain’t making any more.” Bear points out, moreover, that one major problem with the site’s status as a sacred Native place lies in its designation as a state rather than federal park. Federal land enjoys much stricter supervision and preservation under NAGPRA than state parks, and also receives much more federal funding than state parks, especially than Georgia state parks. This remains true despite the fact that federal and state parks are visited at nearly identical rates overall. Bear cites applying for federally protected status as an effective way to ensure preservation of a site, but also emphasizes that the application process is quite arduous and requires Congressional approval. Though the non-native group Friends of the Etowah Indian Mounds represents the most active effort to preserve and maintain the site, they do not focus on protecting the site from Atlanta sprawl. Patty Wallenberg, president of the society, explains that FEIH provides “support for things they need they don’t get,” such as native plant gardens and educational models. "The Friends are the most important aspect of our operation," says Ken Akins. "Since funds from the legislature have dried up, it takes a nonprofit-interest organization like this to provide improvements." Wallenberg affirmed the site’s importance to Atlanta-area native people, even those who are not affiliated ancestrally with the mounds: “many native people still come and pay respects. The site is still sacred to a lot of people.” When asked about the effects of sprawl on the mounds, Wallenberg said, “it kinda stinks,” echoing state and tribal officials’ opinions that however unfortunate it may be, nothing can be done to protect the site from surrounding development.

Local Efforts to Protect Etowah Indian Mounds

In 2004, Bartow County (where the mounds are located) established the Etowah Valley Historic District in an attempt to protect local lands and historic places from sprawl’s destruction. The District’s purpose reads: "It is the purpose and intent of Bartow County in enacting these regulations to provide for the identification of and protection of historical and cultural artifacts and sacred locations of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, which are two Native American Nations that are historically connected to the Etowah River Valley (referred to collectively as "Native American Nations"). The identification and protection of such artifacts and locations is of great benefit to the public welfare, in that it preserves and promotes understanding of the County's and the nation's history, enhances the aesthetic environment, encourages proper economic development, provides tourism opportunities, and benefits all citizens. This Ordinance further honors the agreement made with the Nations by Bartow County. Property in the Etowah Valley Historic District is subject to additional procedures prior to rezoning or development, in order to achieve these purposes." The ‘teeth’ of the legislation are its requirement that any developer complete an archaeological survey that will be submitted to the Cherokee and Muscogee-Creek before submitting a permit request to build. (For specific language, see Endnotes). Ken Akins sees this legislature as the limit of local government’s ability to preserve the historical and cultural resources in their area. Any more profound preservation would require buckets of money that the state doesn’t have. Patty Wallenberg expresses skepticism that the Etowah Valley Historic District legislation will really protect artifacts surrounding the Etowah Indian Mounds from being destroyed: “it’s governmental, so who knows?” She suggests that developers’ deep pockets might quietly grease the machinery of the permits and formalities necessary to build. Akins remains hopeful, however, that this legislation will help minimize the destructive impacts of sprawl around the site by preserving artifacts disturbed by construction.


The Etowah Indian Mounds is a sad example of the U.S. government’s failure to honor and protect sacred sites in its care. The case presents exceedingly difficult circumstances, for there is no tangible ‘enemy’ to fight. The state would like to protect the site better, as would its tribal ancestors and the community surrounding it. However, none of these parties has access to the kind of money needed to preserve buffer land around the mounds. Protecting the mounds’ full integrity, they have concluded, is simply a losing battle. The state, tribe, and friends of the park choose, instead, to focus on preserving and improving what they already have: the 54-acre site.


(A) Any applicant seeking a permit or approval for any development (as defined in the Bartow County Zoning Ordinance) or land disturbance permit in the Etowah Valley Historic District, other than one seeking to erect a single-family residence on a single lot, shall commission an archaeological survey for any property or portion of property within the boundaries of the District. The survey shall be conducted by a qualified archaeologist, as defined in Sec. 7.17.10. No application will be accepted by the County without a completed archaeological survey. (B) The Native American Nations shall be notified prior to the commencement of the archaeological survey by notice stating that a survey is being commenced and describing the subject property, and identifying the archaeologist. (C) The Nations shall also be notified of the completion of the archaeological survey and shall be sent a copy of the completed survey and the application (including site plan), prior to submission to Bartow County. This notice shall state that the Nations have thirty days to respond and comment on the application and survey, from the date of their receipt, and that all such comments shall be sent to both the applicant and the Bartow County Zoning Administrator, at 135 W. Cherokee Street, Cartersville, Georgia 30120. (D) All notices shall be sent to the addresses listed in Sec. 7.17.8, via certified mail, return receipt requested. Copies of all notices sent shall be filed with the application. The return receipt cards of all notices must be filed with the Zoning Administrator within thirty days of the application being filed. (E) If the Nations desire to dispute the recommendation of the applicant's archaeological survey regarding the subject property, they shall be required to submit their own survey and/or recommendation from a qualified archaeologist, as defined in Sec. 7.17.10. Each Nation may submit its own survey. Any survey shall be prepared to the standards of Sec. 7.17.6. The Nations shall submit such survey or recommendation to the applicant and the Zoning Administrator within thirty days of receipt of the application. If no survey is submitted the Nations' archaeologist shall at least make a recommendation, consistent with his or her best professional judgment, as to what action should be taken on the site, e.g.: further survey, removal, avoidance, mitigation, preservation in place, data recovery, or other actions. Updated on June 6, 2012