Photos by the author
The people of Oxford, Alabama have waited more than four years to shop at Sam’s Club, the Walmart subscription mega-store. The economy delayed construction. At least one sinkhole opened up on the site. Then there was the Native American mound, which the city bulldozed to obtain fill dirt for the new store. Since then, officials have largely succeeded in sweeping the matter under the rug—or, more realistically, under the Sam’s Club.
When the damage happened, the mound of stones and the hill it sat on were a hot topic in Oxford. American Indians protested at the base of the hill, next to the future site of the store. A Facebook group attracted protest from around the world. Even a New York Times reporter got on the story. But among hundreds of people who turned out for the long-awaited grand opening, I couldn’t find one person concerned.
“You’re the first person to bring it up,” said the Sam’s Club store manager, Tarah.
“The only media report I’ve seen was from a paranormal reporter,” said a Walmart PR rep named Dianna, who showed me around with the enthusiasm of a real estate agent speaking to newlyweds. “We didn’t take any dirt from that hill,” she added, though I hadn’t asked.
Dirt definitely went somewhere. Even four years later, the hill has a bald patch the size of a house.
At first, Oxford officials didn’t try to conceal their plan to use an archeological site for fill. They went ahead even after a survey commissioned from the University of Alabama noted that more digging might uncover ancient burials. Oxford Mayor Leon Smith did not agree, and official truth bent with him. The local paper reported that he told American Indian leaders, “It ain't never been a burial ground. It was for [smoke] signals.” City officials retracted their earlier statements and agreed with the mayor. The University of Alabama’s archeologist wrote a new report, deciding the pile of rocks was not man-made at all. By that point, most of the site was already bulldozed.
“You know what B.S. is, right?” said Mayor Smith when I asked about the mound. He denied that anything about the hill was ever in question. He also claimed he was a Blackfoot, a “full-blood Indian.” In 2010, he told the New York Times he was half Indian, and not sure what tribe.
There was never any doubt in the mind of Jackson State University anthropologist Harry Holstein, who said Oxford’s stone mound could have been 1500 years old, maybe older. Since the 1980s, Holstein has conducted archeological work on the area’s ancient Creek Indian sites—including the mound that overlooked the shopping center.
“We excavated that site in the 80s, but we didn’t record it,” said Holstein. “People dig into them. If we told people there’s a mound up there, I was afraid that somebody would loot it.”
At one time, the city hired Holstein to conduct an archeological survey across the street for a planned outdoor recreation complex. An earthen mound there, he believes, might have been a regional Creek power center called Ulabahali that was mentioned by sixteenth-century conquistador Hernando de Soto. But when his report recommended avoiding several areas he thought likely to conceal human remains, the city declined his help. Six months after the destruction of the stone mound, the earth mound disappeared, too.
Meanwhile, Oxford summed up its indigenous history with one line on a plaque at the corner of Oak and Main Street. “Long before this territory was ‘settled’, it was inhabited by Creek Indians,” it reads. Specifically, Holstein told me, the Creek village was on the land beneath the parking lot of the grocery store.
The shopping center mounds aren’t the only nearby pre-Columbian monuments. Dozens more are concealed in the woods of the Mountain Longleaf Wildlife Refuge, a few miles away on land that was once Fort McClellan. With one eye out for timber rattlers and copperheads, the professor and I hiked into a valley where ancient Americans constructed miles and miles of low stone walls by hand. At the top of a ridge a thousand feet high, a standing stone pointed west into the sunset. After seeing the place Holstein calls “his Machu Picchu,” it’s hard to believe that hundreds of stones could have piled themselves on top of Oxford’s hill by natural forces.
In any case, it’s too late now. Preservationists won some partial victories, but they feel hollow. The city pressed ahead on construction at the sports complex Holstein surveyed, but work screeched to a halt when workers found a Native American body. After that, Holstein said, the contractors decided to follow his original recommendation and work around likely burial sites. As if out of guilt, the vanished earthen mound re-appeared, higher than before. Then the stones from behind Sam’s Club were trucked across the highway and re-built beside it. Developers had become mound-builders themselves.
The city of Oxford owns the historic sites near the strip malls, and none are open to the public. As we were checking out the re-created mounds, an old man on a riding mower warned us to scram before his bosses arrived. He also said that descendants of the Creek people were visiting from Oklahoma the following week to hold a ceremony, though I was unable to contact Muscogee Nation officials to confirm that.
Near the end of the afternoon, Holstein insisted on showing me the crown jewel of his Creek archeological finds: a beautifully preserved “prayer seat,” a type of rock enclosure many North American indigenous peoples visited to seek spiritual experiences. We’d almost made it when a sudden downpour sent us scurrying off the mountain, clutching our cameras to our chests. Before I left town, I stopped at the nearest store for a dry t-shirt. It was—Where else?—Walmart.
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