An Atlanta Statue of a Muskogee Chief, Modeled After a Reality T.V. Star, Is Under Fire From Native American Critics

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Last fall, the Atlanta-based National Monuments Foundation unveiled a new, 20-foot-tall bronze statue of a Native American chief who allowed the British to colonize his tribe’s land in the 18th century, forming the basis of what is now the state of Georgia. However, the commissioner of the statue failed to consult with the chief’s ancestors, and now tribal leaders and historians say the bronze monument grossly misrepresents its subject.

Tomochichi, a member of the Muscogee who, after being banished by his people, formed his own small tribe called the Yamacraws, is the figure memorialized by the monument, designed by sculptor Stan Mullins. He’s depicted largely in the nude, a slight bear pelt covering his crotch, and is shown gesturing with a gentle, inviting arm.

Critics are calling the statue a primitive, unrealistic representation of the chief, who more likely would have worn a shirt, deerskin leggings, and a ceremonial belt, But, according to a report in the Associated Press. They also take issue with the selection of Tomochichi as the subject, saying that it’s wrong to glorify a person whose actions indirectly led to the ethnic cleansing of his own people.  

The developer who created the National Monuments Foundation and commissioned the $300,000 monument, Rodney Mims Cook, Jr., hired a local model and reality T.V. star, Matt Thomas, to pose as Tomochichi, but only after a DNA test.

“One night, over drinks and cigars with Rodney and [sculptor Stan Mullins], they noticed I had similar facial features and body type to Tomochichi,” Thomas recalled in an Instagram post. “They compared old paintings of the two with me, then ordered a genetics test to see if I had any native blood. When the test came back saying I was ~7 generations removed from a Native American ancestor, Rodney introduced me to one of the descendants of Pocahontas for her approval to stand as model for the chief.” (They did.)

The National Monuments Foundation did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

William Verelst’s 1734 painting of Tomochichi meeting King George II in London. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Tomochichi statue was revealed in front of Atlanta’s Millenium Gate Museum last September, but that’s just its temporary home. Cook, Jr. envisions it being installed for good atop a 115-foot tall column in the recently-opened Rodney Cook, Sr. Peace Park, where it would overlook smaller monuments to figures such as Congressman John Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Planned for inside the column is a museum dedicated to peace leaders from Georgia, according to the National Monuments Foundation website.

British general James Oglethorpe arrived in North America in 1733, hoping to establish the Colony of Georgia. Rather than invite immediate violence against his people, Tomochichi struck a treaty with Oglethorpe, allowing the general to build the city of Savannah on Yamacraw land. As part of the agreement, Tomochichi supplied colonizers with Native American slaves. 

Cook told the AP that the statue was based on a 1734 painting by William Verelst which illustrated Oglethorpe presenting and Tomochichi Yamacraw peoples to King George II in London, a real-life event that took place one year after the British’s colonization efforts.

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