There are about 100 living descendants of the American Indians who once lived where Oxford is building its recreation complex.
Arnold Taylor is among them.
Taylor, a representative of the Arbeka people — members of the Muscogee Creek Nation, and direct descendants of the Native Americans who once lived on and around the complex site — thanked the city of Oxford and council members Friday for showing an interest in his people.
“You’ve heard of stories where the white man has gone in and run the Indians off, and started digging, picking up relics,” Taylor said. “But Oxford has shown great respect with some of these relics that were found, some of the human remains. They did the right thing in doing a reburial. We, as Arbeka, are very proud of Oxford for looking at it that way.”
Taylor was speaking at a ceremony Friday at the site, the official groundbreaking of the multi-million dollar project.
Work there began in May, but the logistics of gathering everyone together — including American Indians from Oklahoma — pushed the golden shovel ceremony back several months.
After nine years of planning and several setbacks, waiting three months for Friday’s ceremony seemed of little consequence to those attending the ceremony.
Oxford City Council president Steven Waits, standing at the podium, said that three consecutive city councils kept the project moving forward.
“While many of the decisions we made were difficult, we always determined we would do what was right,” Waits said. “Because of that, our vision of nine years ago will be more than we could have ever imagined this project could be.”
The discovery of ancient human remains at the site in 2010 cost the city nearly $7 million in construction delays fees, but representatives from the tribal descendants of those Native Americans on Friday expressed gratitude for Oxford’s handling of the matter. Those remained were reburied in accordance with an agreement between the city and the Muscogee Creek Nation.
The past is present
“The truth is, there’s a wonderful story to be told here,” Waits said. “And not only about the ancient people that called this place home, but also their descendants … It’s also a story of how old wounds, they can be healed with new friendships forged.”
Speaking after the ceremony, Taylor talked about his people and the traditions and culture they’ve worked hard to keep alive.
“We still practice the original ceremonies that were handed down to us from here,” Taylor said. “Some things may have been lost because it’s an oral tradition that we go by, instead of written. But we still try to carry on what is left.”
The approximately 100 living Arbeka Indians reside on a ceremonial ground in Oklahoma, Taylor said.
The tribe’s elders are constantly working with the children, Taylor said, to “keep the language alive, keep the ceremonies live and keep the fire alive. That’s the main thing.”
Emman Spain, tribal historic preservation officer for the Muscogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma, said the tribe’s ancestors lived on the complex site and surrounding area for thousands of years.
“We recognize this place as a special place,” Spain said. “I’m glad to see that the city council had the foresight to continue this idea into the future.”
City leaders, architects and tribal leaders are working on a plan to create an educational component at the complex to reflect the Native American Indian history there, Waits said.
“We’re working the details of that out,” Waits said. “It will be a trail.”
An expansive future
In April, City Council members approved a $26.6 million bid from Anniston-based Eugene Turner Construction to build the 360-acre complex.
Once the work is done, around December of 2015, Waits said the complex is expected to generate about $13.5 million annually for the local economy.
That estimate comes from a study done by the city’s own finance department, Waits said, using conservative data and calculations from similar projects across the Southeast.
The site’s location, within one mile of the Oxford Exchange shopping center, Oxford Commons and numerous hotels off exit 188 of I-20, means the thousands of visitors to the complex can spend their money locally, Waits explained.
“With this, our schools are projected to receive an additional $150,000 annual in revenue from the retail school sales tax that is already in place,” Waits said.
The complex will also, for the first time since 2001, give Oxford High School its own regulation track facility, Waits said.
Two fields and accompanying stadiums will become the home fields for Oxford High’s varsity baseball and softball teams.
Oxford will also be able to bid for regional and state sports tournaments, which can draw many more to the area, said Oxford Parks and Recreation director Don Hudson.
Plans for the complex include two baseball and softball complexes, nine other baseball and softball fields, trailhead and picnic facilities, concession stands, four soccer fields, three playgrounds, a 30-acre lake with three miles of walking track and lake pavilions.
“It’s not chopped liver,” said Mike Hamrick, lead architect on the project, with the firm Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood.
Looking out across the site Friday morning, Councilman Mike Henderson said he believes the public will be happy with the final product, and expressed gratitude that after nine years, work is underway.
“I wasn’t sure if this day would ever come,” Henderson said.
Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.