In the summer of 1996, my parents and I were traveling across Montana. We visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, and then went down below the National Park Service site to a small building right next to the Little Bighorn River, near where Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse and roughly 8,000 people from the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho Nations had their camps. There we met Barney Old Coyote, an elder in the Crow Nation, and his daughter Rachel.
Mr. Old Coyote said to me and my family, “The Indian way of telling history is different from the European way. In the European way, everyone tells what they saw, and someone decides which story is the true story. Then that story becomes the history. But the Crow way of telling history is that one person says, ‘From where I was standing, this is what I saw,’ and another person says, ‘From where I was standing, this is what I saw.’ And all of those stories together is the history.”1
A cannon stands in Decatur Square, in DeKalb County, Georgia. Until last June 2020, only a few feet away, there was a Confederate monument, a 30-foot obelisk. The cannon is so small that many white people walk past it without noticing, while the monument was so large, it was impossible to ignore. Both were planted there by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, within two years of each other, the cannon in 1906, and the obelisk in 1908.
The first thing you have to know is that Decatur, Georgia, is proud of its reputation as a diverse community, a welcoming city. The City Commissioners even adopted a resolution affirming diversity and welcome. Nevertheless, year after year, Decatur residents have brought their children to play in the Square; have picnicked and celebrated the 4th of July with concerts on the bandstand (strategically placed to face the Confederate monument), and caught their breath in wonder under the fireworks display, while only a few feet away the obelisk, like a stone radio tower, for 114 years silently continued to broadcast its version of history.
No one ever had to ask what the obelisk commemorated. Although the Civil War had ended more than 40 years before its placement, the descendants of the defeated Confederacy had been busily engaged with mythologizing “the Lost Cause.” And in case there was any question, words were etched into the base on the North, East, South, and West faces of the monument: “Erected by the men and women and children of DeKalb County, to the memory of the soldiers and sailors of the Confederacy…to the end that justice may be done and that the truth perish not.”
Whose justice? Whose truth? Placed directly outside the old DeKalb County Courthouse, while county and city governments worked overtime to erect obstacles to the voting rights and free movement of Black people, there could be little doubt exactly whose version of “justice” and “truth” was being memorialized. “After forty two years,” the inscription continues, “another generation bears witness to the future that these men were of a covenant keeping race….”
Remember when I said that the cannon was placed in 1906, and the obelisk, erected in 1908? The timing here is of more than passing interest. According to local historian Sara Patenaude,
“In 1906, two men were vying for the governor’s mansion in the Democratic primary. At that time, the conservative Democratic Party had a firm hold over the state; winning effectively assured victory in the general election. Both candidates were publishers of major Atlanta newspapers—Hoke Smith of the Atlanta Journal and Clark Howell of the Atlanta Constitution—and both knew their audiences well. The city was home to a growing Black population, where Black-owned businesses were thriving and a small number of African American men were exercising their right to vote. White Georgians were becoming increasingly anxious with what they saw as racial intermingling….” 2
Both Smith and Howell tried to outdo each other in questioning their opponent’s white supremacist credentials. Patenaude writes that they “blamed Black people for the problems facing the state, reacting to racist white sentiment that Black people no longer knew their place in the racial order of the South.” Their newspapers were laced with unsubstantiated and sensationalized accusations “of impropriety and sexual assault by Black men against white women [in order] to stoke fear in white communities that they—and their women—were at imminent risk of attack.” They “explicitly endorsed violence and lynching in retaliation for supposed violations.” Smith, who went on to win both the Democratic Party nomination and the governorship, “called for a new Ku Klux Klan to rise up and take back control.”2
So inflamatory was the rhetoric that, when newspaper headlines on September 22, 1906, proclaimed an “epidemic of rape,” with unsubstantiated claims of sexual assault by Black men against four white women, violence erupted. A mob of 10,000 white men and women began to rampage downtown Atlanta. For three days, September 22-24, the mob raged, Patenaude reports,
“…running down Black men and women, pulling Black people off streetcars, attacking Black-owned businesses along Decatur and Pryor streets and dragging their occupants into the road. The mob attacked Black people indiscriminately, bludgeoning them with iron bars and wagon wheel spokes, hacking them with knives and hatchets, and shooting them with pistols and rifles. Dozens of Black people were killed and hundreds more injured. The crowd then mauled and mutilated the bodies in the quest for ‘souvenirs.'”2
In the 20 years that I have lived in the Atlanta area, I never once heard of the Atlanta Massacre (or “Race Riots”) until this year. Granted that I was raised and educated in Virginia–but few of the white Decatur residents I asked knew anything about it either.
Less than two years after white mobs had terrorized Black citizens, the obelisk rose over Decatur Square, pointing to heaven as if to emphasize the holiness of the Confederate cause and stating that those who fought and died for the Confederacy were the ones who had “held fast to the faith as it was given by the fathers of the Republic.”
Now the obelisk is gone, thanks to years of work by committed Decatur citizens and a courageous judge. But what about that cannon?
Small and unassuming (considering that it is a weapon of war), the cannon bears only a short inscription: “Relic of the Indian War of 1836.” Children climb on it, play around it, hide behind it. What Indian War? What Indians? Are there “Indians” in Georgia? Were there “Indians” in the past? Who were they? Very few of us white people bother to ask, even fewer to find out.
The Mvskoke (Muscogee/”Creek”) Nation lived in the area now known as Georgia for centuries. All of Decatur rests on the ancestral homelands of the Mvskoke, and where Emory University now stands was once a Mvskoke village. However, by 1827, there were virtually no Mvskoke people left in Georgia. A series of treaties had steadily chipped away their land base. Within the Mvskoke Nation there was conflict between those who wanted to fight the European settlers who were encroaching on their land and those who wanted to keep peace. An internal battle erupted, and when it was finished, the Nation lost another 22 million acres of land to the United States. In 1825, under the Treaty of Indian Springs, a chief accepted a bribe from an Indian agent to sign away the remainder of Mvskoke land in Georgia, a betrayal that later cost him his life.
No sooner had the Mvskoke settled in Alabama than the Indian Removal Act of 1830 was passed. White settlers, land speculators, and squatters moved in and began to defraud the Mvskoke out of their allotments. Conflicts arose, and when these conflicts turned violent, U.S. officials described the violence as a “war” in order to argue that the Mvskoke were thereby forfeiting their treaty rights.
In 1836, the U.S. Army was sent to forcibly remove more than 22,000 Mvskoke people. Marched along their own “Trail of Tears,” they were driven into “Indian Territory,” now Oklahoma. Traveling to the end of the trail took an average of three months. Thousands of Mvskoke died on the way from exposure, disease, and starvation.
The cannon glorifies this violent removal with the inscription “Indian War of 1836.”
The historical link between the Confederate monument and the “Indian War” cannon is strong and undeniable. Plantation economy required large tracts of land, and large tracts of land required the enslavement of Africans to work them. And none of it would have been possible if Indigenous peoples had not first been removed, assimilated, killed.
The cannon as it stands in Decatur Square tells a one-sided story, the story that has been officially approved, determined to be “The Truth,” and printed as such in history books by white men whose vested interests, economic and cultural, rely on the preservation of their version of history.
All of our stories together is what makes history. Everything else in an exercise in power and domination.
My mind goes back to that summer of 1996 and the conversation with Crow elder Barney Old Coyote, the difference between the western European, “white” way of telling history and the “Indian” way: From where I was standing, this is what I saw. What I took with me from that conversation is that all of our stories together is what makes history. Everything else is an exercise in power and domination, because the person in power is the one who gets to decide which story is “true.”
From where I stand, I am convinced that it is time–past time–for those of us who are white to sit down in a circle with Black, Brown, and Indigenous people of color and ask, “From where you were (are) standing, what did (do) you see?” And then we must be still. Listen. Believe them when they tell us what they see. Until we undertake that exercise in humility, until we brave that holy discomfort, we will never be free of the prison we have constructed out of history, not only for people of color, but for ourselves. And we will never be able to own up to where we stand.
1Confirmed in personal conversation with Rachel Sue Old Coyote, Crow, daughter of Barney Old Coyote, Crow;
2Sara Patenaude and Azadeh Shahshahani, “Historic First Meets Racist History: Republicans Campaign on Hatred in Georgia,” (Rewire News Group, July 18, 2018); https://rewirenewsgroup.com/article/2018/07/18/historic-first-meets-racist-history-republicans-campaign-hatred-georgia/)