Beacon Hill organizes event honoring Indigenous People’s day, protesting cannon monument

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At 6 pm on Oct. 11, Decatur community members will fill the Decatur Square, wearing masks, to celebrate Indigenous People’s day through a cultural education event and protest organized by Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights. 

The community will hear music, poetry and stories by people of color, part of Beacon Hill’s artistic approach. The Square is home to a cannon monument commemorating the genocide of the Indigenous Muscogee Creek people in the 1836 “Indian War.” Protesting this is a focal point of the event.

On the eve of Juneteenth, a long-standing Confederate monument in the Decatur Square was removed, a result of Beacon Hill’s efforts to unite the community and apply pressure. In close proximity, the cannon monument remains standing, a fact “not missed” by Fonta High and Paul McLennon, heads of Beacon Hill’s Confederate Monument Removal Committee. The committee is tasked with “addressing symbols of white supremacy wherever they may exist within the Decatur community,” High said. 

A fact sheet created by Beacon Hill illustrating the history of the Muscogee Creek Nation in Decatur and their violent removal, commemorated by the cannon monument. They push for a shift from Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s day to overturn the myth of Columbus’ discovery of America and honor Indigenous People.

“The cannon is as much a symbol of white supremacy that celebrates the genocide of Muscogee Creek people from the wars of 1836, and it needed to go as well… So we knew when the obelisk monument went [down] we would have to do some very targeted specific work around the cannon itself,” High said.

Both monuments were planted by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group dedicated to honoring Confederate soldiers; the cannon in 1906 and then the obelisk monument in 1908. 

“We don’t believe that was a coincidence,” High said. “They were [planted] very symbolically to represent their push for their ideology around white supremacy and it was tied to an education campaign that the United Daughters of the Confederacy were doing at the time in schools as they asserted their propaganda around what we know now as the ‘lost cause.’ So all of that is relevant for us still today as we’ve seen a whitewashing of history done from that narrative, and that’s where our work in education comes in also.”

Beacon Hill decided their approach to history telling “needs to be our collective struggle, the struggle of the Native American people and the African people from the diaspora that are here in this area,” High said. 

With this framework established, Beacon Hill looked to implement their approach. Last year, Sara Patenaude, a white, historian ally, gave a walking educational tour to a group of interested community members. But, this year, High wanted to divert from this approach. 

“I knew I didn’t want to approach the very western way we approached it last year, with our white ally telling the history. It needed to come from us, Black people telling our story, Native Americans telling the story, which is why you see the different art forms that are going to take place on that day because those are the ways historically that our cultural groups have used to tell history,” High said.

Then, they decided on potential collaborators and invited them into the conversation, specifically by reaching out to Native American communities. 

In light of the focus of the day– honoring Indigenous people– Beacon Hill is drawing on others’ knowledge and experience, either personally or through specialization and learning, by inviting them into their work. 

In preparation for the event, Beacon Hill held weekly meetings, where they heard invited many of these people to speak. They heard stories from John Winterhawk, a Muscogee Creek leader, and insights of an Emory professor with expertise in alliances with and advocation for Indigenous people, who also invited other figures through her connections. High describes this as “one of the most enriching parts of [Beacon Hill’s] work.” This self education is key to transfer education to the community, she believes.

Though some Indigenous families reside in the City of Decatur, most of the Muscogee Creek people were forced to leave in the infamous Trail of Tears. Beacon Hill aimed to work with the Muscogee Creek people, a reason for reaching out to John Winterhawk.

Winterhawk is a leading figure of the Muscogee Creek community and continues his mother’s legacy as a storyteller. Despite his grandfather’s disapproval of storytellers due to mistrust in society, Winterhawk believes it maintains the resiliency of their community’s culture and traditions, through passing stories and history between generations by dancing, singing, praying and playing instruments. 

“So a lot of the same things go on that went on 100 years ago. We’re really reluctant to change some of those because we want to carry on the old ways so our kids know how it was back then,” he said. “You don’t know who you are unless you know where you came from.”

When Beacon Hill reached out asking whether he would take part in their planned event and attend meetings before then, he agreed, seeing as Decatur was an “old Creek land.” He didn’t have the Zoom application used for meetings on his computer. So, in order to participate in the meetings, she instructed him on how to download and use it. 

Winterhawk’s community relocated to Spring Hill, Alabama after buying their own tribal acreage. He is adamant in calling this the “tribal land” rather than the “tribal reservation” because it wasn’t reserved for them by the federal government, and to be reassured that “it can’t be taken away.” Mistreatment by the government plagues their community and other Indigenous people throughout history. The cannon commemorates this.

Still today, Winterhawk says, “the Federal government makes it very difficult to preserve our culture” by imposing strict guidelines to gain recognition and limiting their history in school curriculums. 

To him, the cannon represents “a mindset of war” and “that we still think we need to have power to rule everybody.”

“That cannon was used against us and it killed a lot of our ancestors and we don’t like that, Winterhawk said. “We don’t like that cannon being where it’s still being in order to have law and order, and peace. And that is not the only way to have peace, we can have peace by our voice and our intentions because  intentions are everything; it’s what we do that really matters in the world.”

Winterhawk feels “welcomed and invited” by Beacon Hill during meetings. 

“I saw that this was a place where we could finally stop that fear of each other and we could finally start putting peace back on the agenda and become a more peaceful people… I do not have a reason to shy away from them. My heart is open at the time that we talk because of how easygoing that they are and I’m learning that it’s safe for me to let my hair down and become more of who I am,” he said. 

Speakers also include DHS senior Alec Myrick’s spoken word performance and an African American storyteller.

As an organization focused on promoting equality, High says Beacon Hill recognizes the need to broaden their efforts to include other minorities’ experiences. 

“Often what we see in the south is a focus on racial issues between Black and white. And that’s very significant, but I think oftentimes what goes overlooked is the experience of a number of different other minorities, specifically Native American or American Indian Indigenous people. So my hope… is that there is more focus on their experiences as well and the intersectionality of where oppressionist struggle exists.” 

Both Blacks and Indigenous people have a collective struggle rooted in colonialism, High said. “We understand history is that it took those who colonized this country to commit genocide against the Native American people in order to steal their land in order to bring enslaved Africans in to work the land and to establish this country,” she said.

The City of Decatur experienced resistance in removing the Confederate obelisk, namely legal intimidation/action from the United Daughters and Sons of the Confederacy. According to DHS senior Koan Roy-Meighoo, Beacon Hill has already faced some resistance for their protest against the cannon.

“[Decatur] was all for community education of anti-racism, but the moment it becomes about taking down the cannon, taking down the monument or really having concrete change people really hesitate and say ‘well maybe we don’t want to look like that.’ We were told that it was too political that we wanted to take down the cannon, so that’s very frustrating because honestly I don’t see this as a political issue, it’s more of a human rights, a social justice issue. So we see in Decatur this supposed idea that we’re a progressive community, but when it comes to getting actual change, really removing artifacts of white supremacy, a lot of organizations that want to maintain their public image don’t want to get themselves entangled with this,” Roy-Meighoo said. 

“There’s always resistance,” he said, whether it’s the state law prohibiting removal, white supremacist organizations or the tendency to stray from change and continue honoring the past.

“[Removing the cannon] will take all the same strategies that we used before, so community pressure, petitions, community education, broader community conversations and collaborating with civil rights attorneys,” High said.

Roy-Meighoo recognizes the process of removing the cannon may necessitate more community education than the obelisk did, as he wasn’t aware of the historical origins of the cannon until High informed him. 

“The moment I heard that, I realized there were probably many other students, and probably many other Decatur residents in general, who were also in the dark like I was… There’s this baseline level of we have to tell people what [the cannon] stands for first and that’s why it’s been challenging getting the word out. With the obelisk, if you walk by it’s kind of hard to miss,” he said.

Roy-Meighoo also believes the context of the Black Lives Matter protests bolstered community support for the confederate obelisk to be removed.

Nonetheless, removing the cannon is significant as “the Indigenous community has been relegated to the margins in American history and in the story of racial justice and fight,” Roy-Meighoo said.

“I think that it was very much a hop on issue, it was on everyone’s minds. It’s sad, but we have to bring this to people’s minds. This is not what people are thinking about right now. So that’s an additional challenge,” he said.

Once the event wraps up, DHS seniors involved in Beacon Hill, including Koan Roy-Meighoo, will introduce a petition to the community advocating for the removal of the cannon. After videos circulated this past spring of DHS students saying racial slurs and threats, the students announcing the petition is significant, he said. 

“We’ve seen our student body not reflect what I believe the majority of the student body wants… So we want the students to talk about how we can change, because not only are we a symbol for the future and we are the next wave of people who will really combat racism, but we want students to really take this step forward, own up to some faults of the student body and say that we need to change this,” Roy-Meighoo said. “So the petition is one that will show the City of Decatur, the county, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, that we want this to come down and that’s what the entire community wants. And I think… the message that the people who have grown up around [the cannon] want it gone is a strong message.”

Not only is High’s committee focused on dismantling symbols of white supremacy, but also erecting “affirmative art structures,” she said.

Before the Confederate monument was removed, Roy-Meighoo discussed his interest in erecting counter art to the monument with DeKalb Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson, pulling fellow DHS senior Julian Fortuna into his efforts. So, when the monument was removed in June, he and Fortuna reached out to senior Daxton Pettus about connecting with and joining Beacon Hill to amplify their efforts. 

“They are an incredibly effective organization… because they are constantly thinking about the human condition in Decatur, more so than trying to do anything for image or to slap their name on any change that’s already been made, they do grassroots organization,” Roy-Meighoo said. “So the kind of work that I wanted to do, which was putting up artwork, really talking with people, getting the community’s voice, that’s what Beacon Hill is great at doing. Their organization is all about giving a platform for people to share their voice.”

Through Beacon Hill, Roy-Meighoo was able to better manifest his interest by helping launch an “Art for the People” project, which has gained sizable funding through a GoFundMe page and a $5,000 donation from the City of Decatur. He explains why the removal of the cannon supports the essence of this project: “the cannon is art for a very selective group of white supremacists.” 

“It is art for the glorification of genocide, it is not art that represents Decatur, at least as I see it,” Roy-Meighoo said. “Through the project, we’re making sure that we are a group of diverse artists that are hearing every voice that wants to contribute to the process, that we’re telling stories in a very holistic way and that’s not what this cannon does. This cannon celebrates the Indian Wars and it talks about European imperialism while conveniently leaving out that there was a genoicde that had to happen. So it’s very against the principles of the Art for the People project because it propagates a one sided history.”

Roy-Meighoo has also initiated a partnership with Little Shop of Stories, a local bookstore in the Square. They will host a book raffle at the event, in which all the proceeds will go towards funding the Art for the People project. 

High hopes the absence of the canon will lend to a celebration for the Indigenous community alike the celebration for the Black community the removal of Confederate monument led to on the eve of Juneteenth. She also wishes to see a larger, nation-wide shift from celebrating Columbus day to Indigenous People’s day.   

“[Columbus] is seen as a hero, but he’s not a hero. And he’s celebrated for something he did not accomplish. So that’s not a true representation of history. So it’s an opportunity for us to actually teach what is history and challenge what has been propaganda as an extension of white supremacy and colonialism,” High said.

On Oct. 1, Winterhawk exhibited flu-like symptoms, leading him to test for COVID-19. His results returned positive. Due to the dangers posed by contagiousness, Beacon Hill found a way for Winterhawk to speak from his location via technology. 

Winterhawk still hopes he can contribute to the removal of the cannon by sharing his Muscogee Creek history and the experiences relative to the “Indigenous moment that’s alive today.” 

 

Please contact the writer, Alexis Siegler, at 94alexsieg@csdecatur.net with any comments and questions