ATLANTA (AP) – There’s a problem with putting someone on a pedestal: Exposed on all sides, a hero to some can be seen as a traitor to others.
Atlanta plans to install a statue of a Native American man atop a 34-metre column in its new Peace Park, where it will tower over statues of 17 civil rights icons, including the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
Developer Rodney Mims Cook Jr calls Chief Tomochichi “a co-founder of Georgia” who prevented massacres by warmly inviting British General James Oglethorpe to colonise his people’s land in 1733.
“They became the closest of friends, initiating from the moment of Georgia’s founding a practice of diplomatic negotiation and cohabitation,” a narrator asserts in a video promoting the park. “Nearly three centuries later, Georgia’s tradition of peaceful coexistence continues to thrive.”
But Cook didn’t ask the Muscogee about their ancestor, and now that he’s unveiled the USD300,000 bronze statue, historians say it’s all wrong. “Disrespectful” and “incredibly inappropriate” are some of the reactions three tribal historians shared with The Associated Press.
They say the nearly naked figure presents an offensive and historically inaccurate conception of Native Americans as primitive savages, and glorifies a heavily mythologised figure blamed by the Muscogee for initiating a century of ethnic cleansing. They also say that Atlanta is erasing them again, acting as if they vanished without a fight after handing over their land and heritage.
Even if Cook has the best intentions, there’s no excuse today for failing to work with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, whose 93,100 enrolled citizens constitute the fourth-largest federally recognised tribe, said Raelynn Butler. She directs their cultural preservation division. Norma Marshall, who teaches tribal history at the College of the Muscogee Nation; and Turner Hunt, who handles thousands of tribal-patrimony inquiries annually, joined her in a call from Okmulgee, Oklahoma.
The city council unanimously approved a plan in 2020 that would align Tomochichi with statues of the late Representative John Lewis, Coretta Scott King and Rodney Mims Cook Sr, a white Republican legislator who stood out in Atlanta as a civil rights ally.
The statue recently unveiled at a temporary spot outside Cook’s Millennium Gate Museum portrays Tomochichi making a wide, welcoming gesture with his right hand while using his left to clutch a bear pelt that fails to cover his rear end.
“Can we put some clothes on the man, please?” Marshall said. “Is this the only statue that doesn’t have any clothing on?”
In reality, Tomochichi would have worn deerskin leggings and a long white shirt with a ceremonial belt and an elaborate bandolero bag, according to the Muscogee and other scholars. Muskogean-speaking tribes traded deer skins for European cloth, beads, guns and ammunition for a century before Oglethorpe arrived, they noted.
Cook said Tomochichi’s statue was based on a painting and a drawing from his 1734 trip to London to meet King George II. But according to Western Carolina University historian Andrew Denson, those images by artist Willem Verelst were propaganda. They were commissioned to convince potential British migrants that Native Americans were weak and uncivilised, said Denson, whose book Monuments to Absence explores how white people appropriated their cultural memory.
And while school texts promote a myth of peaceful coexistence, white settlers waged ruthless extermination campaigns to force them westward, said University of Georgia historian Claudio Saunt, who wrote Unworthy Republic – The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory.
Saunt called the statue a monstrosity. He said the Tomochichi’s gesturing right hand says to the colonists, “Here, come and take it.”
The Atlanta reality TV actor who modelled for the statue posted on Instagram that Cook had his DNA tested and found a Native American ancestor seven generations removed, and brought in a descendant of Pocahontas for approval before he posed in a loincloth.
Claiming Native American identity through DNA is another insult, the Muscogee said.
Cook said he tried in vain for years to discuss his “Georgia Peacemakers” plan with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama. But Hunt said that group, which won federal recognition in 1984 and built a casino that displaced Muscogee graves, isn’t culturally, historically or linguistically related to the people who lived in present-day Georgia.
Cook said he’s eager to connect now that he knows the Muscogee are the ones to talk with, to see if they’ll participate in his vision and tell a fuller story.
“I’m glad to have the conversation because we need to talk about all this,” Cook said. “Let’s not tear down. Let’s just add the story and correct it.”
The council approved a historical oversight committee to ensure “accuracy and authenticity” when it authorised the mayor to enter into a lease agreement with Cook’s foundation. But Cook said then-Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms never signed it.
Everyone interviewed for this story said they’d welcome more education about what really happened with Native Americans in Georgia.
The Muscogee historians said Oglethorpe called Tomochichi a king to serve his colonial ambitions, but he was more like a small-town mayor. Banished by his people, he declared himself leader of the “Yamacraws”, fewer than 200 outcasts who sought refuge among the British. He lacked authority to give away land, and Butler said the Yamacraw people lived on only in the settlers’ imagination after his 1739 death.
Tomochichi also supplied colonisers with Native American slaves, and promised, in Article Six of the 1733 treaty, “to apprehend and secure any Negro or other slave which shall run away from any of the English Settlements” and return them for the price of one gun if alive, or a blanket if dead.
“Is he looking for the whole truth here? The fact that he was a slaver and ran slaves up to the colonies? That’s what the historical documents say,” Hunt said. But the Muscogee blame British traders who cheated Tomochichi’s people into debts they had to repay by forcing enemies into human bondage, setting off a 1715 war.
“You can’t hide from it. It was a part of history as part of colonisation,” Hunt said. “And that’s what I blame – I blame colonisation.”