Protesters gather Friday at American Indian site in Oxford
by Rebecca Walker
Staff Writer
Jun 27, 2009 | 4123 views |  5 comments | 52 52 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Protest of land destruction behind Oxford Exchange
Protest of land destruction behind Oxford Exchange
More than 50 people joined hands behind the Oxford Exchange Friday night to protest the demolition of the large hill behind it, which is believed by some to be a sacred Native American site.

"Money has taken over, and they have no consideration for our people," said Tony Castanedo, Sr., who is a local Native American tribal elder.

The hill contains a stone mound and, according to the Alabama Historical Commission's deputy state historic preservation officer, is the largest of its kind in the state. The site is at least 1,500 years old and was constructed during what was known as the Woodland era. The city, through its Commercial Development Authority (CDA), has paid to have the hill taken down and used as fill for a Sam's Club under construction nearby.

Near sundown, protesters gathered in a circle while several tribal representatives and other community members spoke to the crowd. In the distance, it was clear a portion of the hill was already missing from work that began Wednesday.

Mark Davis, who identifies himself as a Cherokee Tuscarora, said that he was impressed by how many came to the protest.

"Considering that we gave less than 24 hours notice, I think the turnout was pretty good," he said. "And to be quite honest, I was surprised to find the hill still standing when we got here tonight. I was sure when they heard about the protest, it would be gone before then."

There is some dispute about the importance of the site; Harry Holstein, a professor of archeology and anthropology at Jacksonville State University, said it could contain human remains. Oxford Mayor Leon Smith and City Project Manager Fred Denney say it was used to send smoke signals.

"Human remains are still there," said Sharon Jackson, who is a Creek Indian elder and helped organize the protest. "And we didn't use smoke signals, anyway. If we did, it would have looked like popcorn because of the trees. Also, it's not the highest hill in the area. If they used smoke signals, they would have used the highest.

"The Creek Indians used runners to deliver messages to those nearby."

Davis said that Native Americans in the area are not doing this for political reasons.

"I can appreciate what Mayor Smith has done for the city," he said. "But once in a while we stumble and do something wrong. This is wrong."

While many in attendance came to show support, others came to learn more about the cause. Misty Haynes of Munford said she and her husband Chris brought their young son Christopher to see how the group was protesting.

"It sounds to me like they've got themselves a good case going," Chris Haynes said. "If there's proof it's sacred ground, they need to leave it like it is."

Jackson said that excavators would probably not find human remains due to Creek burial rituals. The soil, according to Jackson, contains Creek ancestors.

"When Creeks buried people, they would put a body on top of the ground, and put on rocks," she said. The soil here is so acidic that after 1,000 to 1,500 years, nothing would be left."

Still, Jackson said that she doesn't understand why this particular hill has to be demolished to obtain fill dirt for the development.

"How much fill dirt is there in Calhoun County other than that?" she said, gesturing to the hill. "Why do they have to use a sacred site?"

Another local woman said she sees inconsistency with how American Indian heritage is handled in the United States, compared to other heritages.

Said Melissa Thompson of Anniston, "This is religious, too. If we can preserve heritage for our black brothers and sisters, and for all those religions, then surely we can do it for the people who were the first ones in the country," she said, her voice rising.

Thompson said her heritage is a mixture of Creek and Cherokee.

Protest organizers said they were unsure as to whether the turnout would make a difference to CDA leaders. On Thursday, Councilwoman June Land Reaves said she did not think the protests would stop the demolition, but said that she thought the site was worth some sort of preservation.

The protesters said this wasn't the last stand, and that they plan to continue their quest to stop the hill's destruction.

"We're not giving this up without a fight," Jackson said.

Smith told ABC 33-40 if any remains are found, they will be reburied there and that only one-third of the hill is to be removed.

"I'm not trying to hurt anybody, Indians or anybody else. I'm trying to do what's best for this community," the mayor is quoted as saying on the station's Web site.
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