Heflin man brings stories, photos back from 'mound'
by Dan Whisenhunt
Staff Writer
Jul 12, 2009 | 10058 views |  3 comments | 59 59 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Johnny Rollins, whose grandmother was an American Indian, took pictures of the mound before the debate over its destruction began. Photo: Special to The Star
Johnny Rollins, whose grandmother was an American Indian, took pictures of the mound before the debate over its destruction began. Photo: Special to The Star
OXFORD — His grandmother told him the story when he was 9.

Johnny Rollins, 49, of Heflin, still remembers. His grandmother's name was Hollie, and she was an American Indian, though Rollins doesn't know her tribe. What sticks out in his mind years later is what she told him about the hill in Oxford shortly before she passed.

"She knew she was going to die," Rollins said. "She said any time I wanted to talk to her, go to that mountain."

Forty years later, he did that and took pictures weeks before anyone realized the stone mound on the hill was under threat. His story about his hike resonates with American Indians who want to save the mound before it's destroyed in the name of development.

Construction crews are harvesting the dirt from the hill as fill for a Sam's Club next door. After days of protest and attention from around the country, the mound, estimated to be between 1,000 and 1,500 years old, has received a temporary reprieve.

A city project manager says it's still intact, though its true condition can't be determined. The city recently has put up gates and no-trespassing signs.

Stacye Hathorn, an archeologist with the state Historical Commission, said the rectangular-shaped holes in the Rollins' pictures were made by University of Alabama researchers hired by the city.

"The surrounding rocks that you see in the photo are the irregular limestone rocks of which the mound itself is composed," she said. "Archeologists aren't sure why these stone features were constructed or even how they were used. Only a few have been excavated in the past. Some have human burials, others do not have evidence of burials remaining. Many, like the mound in Oxford, seem to be associated with the late Woodland period of prehistory."

Rollins said an employee of Oxford-based Taylor Corp., the company hired to take down the hill, told him about the mound. On a sunny Sunday afternoon in May, Rollins hiked up the hill with his brother.

He knows something about the value of things that are old. At one time, he was an auctioneer, though he's disabled now. He's heavy-set, with a small stiff mustache, and light blue eyes. When he laughs, the veins in his cheeks crackle with blood. Rollins believes the mound is a sacred place.

"(My grandmother) described how it was, said when they buried people, they'd stack rocks on them," Rollins said. "Each time they'd come to visit, they'd stack rocks on it."

From the bottom of the hill Rollins saw herbs and a magnolia tree. He remembers it was a sunny day with storm clouds in the distance. "It never did rain on us."

Already work crews were near the hill. He saw where tractors carved out a road. Rollins came up through the woods on the back side. What he remembers the most is the size of the structure; an official with the Alabama Historical Commission has said the mound is the largest of its kind in the state.

"This wasn't done over a day's time," he said.

Rollins came with his own offering. He makes arrow-heads in his spare time and laid one down at the site. He and his brother picked up trash left around it. They also saw rectangular excavation holes made by UA researchers. At first, he mistook them for graves.

Nothing conclusive has been discovered about the possibility of burials at the site. The UA report recommended the city keep an expert on hand in case evidence of burials is discovered.

The thought of the mound's destruction bothers Rollins; though the city says it hasn't touched the mound, there are still workers around the hill. For him, it's like someone disturbing his own grave.

"It seems like it's taking part of you away," he said of the demolition. "I always felt I had ties to that there."

Tony Castaneda and Sharon Jackson, who both say they are American Indian elders, are familiar with the story Rollins' grandmother told him. Jackson said she often visits mounds and makes offerings of tobacco and sage.

Robert Thrower, chairman of the heritage committee for the United South and Eastern Tribes, said too much emphasis is being placed on whether the sites contain remains or any other artifacts. USET is made up of 25 recognized tribes on the Eastern seaboard and Gulf Coast region. Thrower is also cultural authority director for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama.

Even if the hill held nothing but the mound, it would still be sacred, he said. He said USET passed a resolution in 2007 urging that stone structures like the one in Oxford be protected. There are few legal protections for them, however.

He said leaving stones at stone mound sites was a "fairly common practice" for American Indian groups and other cultures. Hathorn has said demolishing the mound would be like destroying a church. Thrower said that's a good comparison.

"I feel these structures obviously were not all built at one time," Thrower said. "People would come periodically to these sites. We're talking about prayer. That's why we call these structures, 'Prayer in stone.'"

Click here to read the full University of Alabama report on the Oxford stone mound
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Heflin man brings stories, photos back from 'mound' by Dan Whisenhunt
Staff Writer

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