The story of my life has been filled with sudden emails and sudden telephone calls telling me that someone on the Hill wanted to dialogue with me in person. So, I would leave the Lowcountry of the Sea Islands to make my way northward and climb the Hill. The Presidential invitation to the “America’s Great Outdoors Conference,” “White House Conference on Conservation,” and the US Department of the Interior’s invitation to “America’s Summit on National Parks” were no different. Within each of these arenas, I met people that had a passion for the outdoors and for getting the lands protected so that people could visit these outdoor places and embrace the health benefits of doing so. Resonating in their many speeches and roundtable discussions was the concept of going “back to the land.” Yet, I climbed the Hill to remind them that there are those that are not a part of that movement. In fact, we are of the movement to “stay pun de land!” As a result, they needed to hear and remember what is said by those that are indigenous to the land which includes not only the Native Americans that were represented by those that worked for the US Bureau of Indian Affairs, but also the Gullah/Geechees.
I can recall the rapid writing at one private session to discuss what can be learned from the lifestyles of those of us that I call “traditionalists” that continue to literally live from the land and waterways in the way that our Gullah/Geechee ancestors did. The US government representatives wrote numerous notes on the suggestions that I made. I prayed then that these notes would not simply get lost in a file at one of the agencies (including the one simply profiling me), but that it would be a part of the overall report of these proceedings as an “action item.” I always believe that God does answer prayers and that was definitely the case as evidenced by the recent visit of a lady that I met on those climbs up the Hill.
I am sure that there are others that may say that they met Sally Jewell on a hill, but it would be in the great outdoors as she enjoyed the atmosphere no doubt while using REI equipment from the company that she was leading when we first met. However, our journey together was an outdoor experience taking place inside of buildings on Capitol Hill. We dialogued together about the benefit to furthering a wide range of public/private partnerships to protect and encourage people to engage in “America’s Great Outdoors.” As people continued to discuss the major federal lands that had become national parks, I continued to emphasize the national heritage areas and all that they had to offer not just in regard to the outdoor experiences, but the cultural legacies and history that could be learned within them. All of these places had economic benefits to the communities that they were in and the gateway communities that led to you to and through the federal lands that were part of the region. So, do not leave out a national heritage area that is an entire region and runs through the Gullah/Geechee Nation-the Gullah/Geechee National Heritage Corridor as a place that encompassed many of the elements that the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative included and also contained many federal lands.
I am a person of balance, so I also needed to note my concerns for what was taking place within the Gullah/Geechee Nation that was negatively impacting the continued existence of not only Gullah/Geechee culture, but of the natural beauty of our environment. Sea level rise and climate change issues were major things that were flooding in on us and we needed partnerships that would help stem this tide. Things from Capitol Hill do not roll down rapidly like waterfalls. Instead, they often reach the local level like dripping water to prevent a pipe from freezing. So, after the journeys up the Hill and back down, I waited. Others waited. We connected with each other to find out if anyone else had heard anything and what we had heard was of no consequence to the issues that we had presented on behalf of people and communities of people of color. So, we waited.
While waiting, news came that many of those that we had collaborated with and talked to were retiring and leaving Capitol Hill. This included the Secretary of the Department of the Interior. Now, we wanted to know who would fill and fulfill this position. A familiar name was sent out-Sally Jewell. We started talking again and cheering on this appointment. I was very happy for her and knew that someone that had a passion for the country and for the outdoors was going to be adding her expertise in business and community engagement with the others on top of the Hill. I never thought I would be contacted to welcome her to the Lowcountry of the Gullah/Geechee Nation.
Southern hospitality prevails and we surely dropped everything and welcomed the United States Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell to our country! Several of us that had served on the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission were in the house. I had personally been invited due to me being the Chieftess and Head-of-State for the Gullah/Geechee Nation and because of the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition‘s on-going partnership with the US Fish & Wildlife Service and National Wildlife Refuge System. These partnerships and how they are a model to other communities in America were what Secretary Jewell came to see and to learn more about in order to show others how to replicate this type of success in other lands.
She heard and saw that the Gullah/Geechee culture was of major importance in this area and was a crucial part of the success of these partnerships. She also flew over and took boat rides to the Sea Islands and saw the climate change issues that were rapidly eroding the coast line as well. She saw how as the trees were laying down and dying, the people were standing up and together they were thriving. So, her final words left me comforted that my journeys up the Hill had not been in vain and I was pleased to be able to bring her back down to our land and into our wilderness which has not only provided us with physical, but also spiritual nourishment for many generations. I pray that her spirit and mind were also nourished and blessed by her contact with Gullah/Geechee Sea Island soil in the Gullah/Geechee Nation‘s great outdoors! I felt like shoutin cumin out de wildaness fa sho!