OPINION: ‘Nekkid’ chief the latest of the Peace Park’s problems

 Workers temporarily install the statue of Tomochichi, chief of the Yamacraw, at the Millennium Gate Museum on 17th St. Monday, September 20, 2021.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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Workers temporarily install the statue of Tomochichi, chief of the Yamacraw, at the Millennium Gate Museum on 17th St. Monday, September 20, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

One of the first things you notice about the 20-foot-tall bronze statue of Chief Tomochichi standing along 17th Street is that he’s ripped like Michelangelo’s David, but is sturdier, like he could break a linebacker’s tackle.

And he’s not wearing much.

The latter is a point mentioned by several Muscogee scholars who recently criticized the statue in a widely read story from the Associated Press. The plan is to one day erect the statue upon a 115-foot tall pedestal to be the signature piece at Rodney Cook Sr. Park, a now-popular destination just west of downtown. It is part of the ambitious plan of the late Cook’s son, Rodney Jr., who dreams in Greco-Roman grandeur and envisions a “Peace Park” dedicated to civil rights heroes.

Tomochichi was the creator of a small tribe called the Yamacraw. He greeted James Oglethorpe and 114 British colonists when they landed in 1733 in what is now Savannah. He is cordially known in Georgia History as sort of the Friendly Indian who did not massacre the newcomers and instead befriended them. Sort of a Pocahontas, but with muscles. Tomochichi cut political and business deals with the colonists, owning a skill set that would now land him in the Georgia Legislature or on the Chamber of Commerce.

The statue of him was finished last year and placed near Cook’s Millennial Gate in Atlantic Station in an effort to get Atlantans to warm up to the big guy.

However, some Native Americans are turning a cold shoulder to the idea. First, they say, Tomochichi is not the right guy to memorialize. Nor is this the proper portrayal.

“Why is he nekkid?” asked Turner Hunt, the acting tribal preservation officer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. “Why is his butt cheek hanging out?”

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The National Monuments Foundation plans to construct the Peace Column, topped with an image of Tomochichi, the native American chief who gave James Oglethorpe land on which to start the Georgia colony. The foundation is raising $25 million to create memorials to Georgia’s many peacemakers and civil rights heroes.

The National Monuments Foundation plans to construct the Peace Column, topped with an image of Tomochichi, the native American chief who gave James Oglethorpe land on which to start the Georgia colony. The foundation is raising $25 million to create memorials to Georgia’s many peacemakers and civil rights heroes.

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The National Monuments Foundation plans to construct the Peace Column, topped with an image of Tomochichi, the native American chief who gave James Oglethorpe land on which to start the Georgia colony. The foundation is raising $25 million to create memorials to Georgia’s many peacemakers and civil rights heroes.

Hunt and others say the clothing choice, just a fur pelt (partially) wrapped around him, is not what would be his normal dress, leather pants and a cloth shirt. But their problem goes deeper than how he is clad, or unclad. It’s about who he was.

“If given the choice, Tomochichi is not someone we’d have up on a pedestal,” said Hunt. Tomochichi had been ostracized by other chiefs, so he formed his own band of about 200 members. Hunt said it was “very likely” he took part in enslaving those from other tribes in exchange of goods from the Europeans.

That would, critics say, make it odd for him to be featured in a park along with statues of Martin Luther King Jr., Andy Young and John Lewis, among others.

Steven Peach, a history professor at Tarleton State University in Texas, has studied Tomochichi and says he “embodies many complications and paradoxes.”

“He was kind of a local leader who was marginalized and looking to get back into the big time,” Peach said. “Oglethorpe shows up and he sees an opening, an opportunity. If he can hitch his wagon to Oglethorpe, he can be seen as a legitimate leader.”

Next thing you know, Tomochichi is sailing to England with his new buddy and being trotted out in front of royalty.

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Rodney Mims Cook, Jr., who likes to build monuments, plans to donate $10.5 million from his foundation to build 16 statues in a Vine City park that would honor heroes of the civil rights movement. Photo by Bill Torpy

Rodney Mims Cook, Jr., who likes to build monuments, plans to donate $10.5 million from his foundation to build 16 statues in a Vine City park that would honor heroes of the civil rights movement. Photo by Bill Torpy

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Rodney Mims Cook, Jr., who likes to build monuments, plans to donate $10.5 million from his foundation to build 16 statues in a Vine City park that would honor heroes of the civil rights movement. Photo by Bill Torpy

Cook, a fellow who doesn’t dream small, seems to be gobsmacked by the turn of events. He has worked with the city for more than a decade as Atlanta created the park while undergoing a massive reengineering of the land to prevent chronic flooding in the area.

In 2016, I met with Cook when there was pushback at naming the site Mims Park, after a long-ago relative, Mayor Livingston Mims. It would have been the second Mims Park, the first coming in the early 1900s. Andy Young went to bat for Cook — he still does — and the plan continued. A statue of Young is planned to be unveiled next month at the park.

Last year, I walked the mostly completed park with Cook. At the time, City Hall was dragging its feet on setting up a leasing deal for Cook to plop those monuments on city land. City Councilman Michael Bond is trying to work that one out. There are also plans for Bond’s late father, Julian, to get a statue.

The latest snafu is “disappointing and is counter-productive of what we’re trying to accomplish,” Cook said. “We’re pulling this nation apart. We’re trying to find common aspects that bring us together.”

“This made us seem like stupid white men not knowing what we’re doing,” said Cook, who assures me he knows what he is doing. Cook said he has researched the matter and says the statue is modeled after a painting where Tomochichi was in London, meeting with a pack of English bigwigs in powdered wigs and wearing a fur pelt.

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In London in 1734 - a year after James Oglethorpe landed in Savannah with the first English colonists to start the Georgia colony, William Verelst painted Chief Tomochichi and a delegation of Yamacraw or Creek Native Americans with Oglethorpe and the Georgia Trustees. Oglethorpe is standing in the center, receiving an Indian boy by hand. (Courtesy of Wikipedia/public domain)

Credit: Wikipedia public domain

In London in 1734 - a year after James Oglethorpe landed in Savannah with the first English  colonists to start the Georgia colony, William Verelst painted Chief Tomochichi and a delegation of Yamacraw or Creek Native Americans with Oglethorpe and the Georgia Trustees. Oglethorpe is standing in the center, receiving an Indian boy by hand. (Courtesy of Wikipedia/public domain)

Credit: Wikipedia public domain

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In London in 1734 - a year after James Oglethorpe landed in Savannah with the first English colonists to start the Georgia colony, William Verelst painted Chief Tomochichi and a delegation of Yamacraw or Creek Native Americans with Oglethorpe and the Georgia Trustees. Oglethorpe is standing in the center, receiving an Indian boy by hand. (Courtesy of Wikipedia/public domain)

Credit: Wikipedia public domain

Credit: Wikipedia public domain

Tomochichi was in his 80s when he knew Oglethorpe, “but we chose to portray him in his prime,” Cook said, adding he repeatedly tried to contact the Poarch Creeks, a tribe in Alabama, with no success.

Told that, Norma Marshall, a professor of Native American Studies at the College of the Muscogee Nation, chuckled and said, “They’re not us.”

The Muscogees I spoke with see this as an opportunity for education. Cook said he has called them to seek some “consultation and collaboration” going forward.

“I think he had good intentions,” said Marshall. “We have to sit down with logic and reason and come to some level of respect.”

Now, if Tomochichi could came back, maybe he could pound out a deal.

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