How are local cultural resources being protected in light of Kentucky Native American reburial?

By Lee Roberts

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Sept. 27, 2012) – Indian Country Today reported yesterday that Native American remains were on display at Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site in Kentucky for 61 years until a reburial in June 2011 repatriated them.  Chickasaw Nation Lt. Gov. and National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel officiated an honoring ceremony Aug. 23 and said, “Today marks the closing of one of the most disgusting periods of American History.”

According to the report, Carla Hildebrand, Wickliffe Mounds manager, said the site on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River was occupied by Native Americans from 1100-1350 A.D. Then in 1932 a private land owner placed the burials on display for education, but used the spectacle to make money.

Thomas Pearce, co-chairman of the Indiana/Kentucky chapter of the American Indian Movement, said in the story that Native Americans will never allow their ancestors and sacred sites to be used to provide entertainment for others.  He said violations continue with rampant development, massive strip mining operations, and grave robbing.

Locally in Tennessee, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District works to protect Native American cultural resources on Corps-managed lands.

Valerie McCormack, Nashville District archaeologist, said the organization seeks to be respectful of cultural heritage through building trust and maintaining open lines of communication with American Indian tribes.

“On our project lands the Corps does not release site locations and makes every effort to protect sites,” McCormack said.  “Erosion for the river and illegal looting are the biggest threats to cultural resources in the Nashville District. The May 2010 flood severely eroded the riverbank and exposed archaeological resources along the Cumberland River.”

The Corps initiated a survey of the stream bank after the flood to assess the damage and communicated the results with American Indian tribes. The Corps also provided bank protection to two sites with important resources, and consulted to determine priorities and to choose engineering methods to best protect sites from future erosion and looting, she explained.

“The Corps does not display human remains or funerary items as was the case of many museums in years past,” McCormack said.  “Some of our visitor centers do display utilitarian tools such as pieces of domestic pottery or spear points.  We are considering a display for the Cordell Hull Resource Manager’s Office that would use replicas of spear points.  The Corps is in the early stages of planning this exhibit, but plans to engage American Indian tribes to ensure information is portrayed in a respectful manner. The exhibit and outreach is also important for educational opportunities for citizens to be respectful of all heritages and as a way to combat looting on land outside of the Corps control.”

The Corps adheres to requirements as established in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.

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