It is your tax money that pays for museum malarkey, inept professors and disappearing Native American cemeteries
Put your mouth where your money is or nothing will change.
Photo Above: After being busted the previous month for playing king of the mountain on the slopes of the Great Serpent Mound in Ohio, Laird Rob Roy McGreggor and Lady Sheena McGreggor tempt fate again on the Great Temple Mound at Ocmulgee. They would go on to set the world’s record for the number of Native American mounds studied by a canine archaeologist.
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, my mother and Granny Ruby would periodically rage as they saw “The New History” being institutionalized in the Lower Southeast and an increasing number of government administrators viewing their “prime objective” to be hiring members of their particular cult or branch of organized crime.
I was living in Western North Carolina and then Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, but somehow my mother and grandmother thought that unloading on me via the US Mail would do something about their concerns. By then my mother had been elevated to a position as an educator, where she could suggest changes in the state history syllabus, but it never dawned on her to speak up. She still thought of herself as that poor country girl, who Papa Obie took the University of Georgia in a mule wagon. By the way, she attended on a full scholarship and graduated Summa Cum Laude! After retirement, she was even appointed to an Alumni Advisory Council.
The Case of the Missing Native American cemeteries
A descendant of a prominent Creek family in Southeast Georgia contacted me yesterday with a concern that is bothering many Native Americans in the Southeast. Where are our ancestors’ skeletons going, when they are moved from the paths of highways and subdivisions? In fact, in Southeast Georgia, they even know the names of some of the people buried in these cemeteries, yet their ancestor’s skeletons are just disappearing into the fog of bureaucratic procedures. They were never contacted by local authorities concerning the burials, because the burials were classified as “Native Americans.”
Let’s make it clear. This is not a problem at the level of law enforcement officers. I have found that sheriff’s deputies, US Army Corps of Engineers rangers, National Park Service rangers and state wildlife rangers go out of the way to enforce the laws in regard to Native American burials and artifacts. Many of them are part Native American, themselves. However, once they identify a burial, the process leaves them behind, not knowing what happened to the skeletons.
State and federal laws concerning destruction of all cemeteries are very straightforward. In order to relocate a cemetery, the property owner must follow specific legal procedures that include notifying all next of kin. If no next-of-kin can be located, professional archaeologists must be utilized to transfer the human remains to another cemetery. In almost all cases now, those laws are being obeyed for Caucasian and African-American cemeteries, but there has been very little real improvement for the situation for Native American burials in the Southeast, where where our ancestors built vast cemeteries, and in the case of the Itstate Creeks, buried their dead under the floors of their houses. Entire Proto-Creek towns in Georgia and eastern Alabama are essentially cemeteries.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1991 was supposed to fix the problems. It didn’t. Perhaps well over a hundred thousand Southeastern indigenous skeletons were being stored in cardboard boxes in warehouses and museum basements, whose locations stretched all the way north to Boston. State Councils for Native American concerns were supposed to supervise the vast movement of skeletons and grave goods unearthed by archaeologists from the storage shelves of museums and Departments of Anthropology to proper burial in dedicated cemeteries.
Initially a dribble of returned skeletons were processed . . . then the process was conveniently forgotten. Museums made a grand show of removing exhibits of skeletons in their museums, but most skeletons in the basements and warehouses are still there . . . or just done disappeared Thelma Lu! For that matter, my mother when I was six years old and my Creek pastor, when I was 16 took me to burials of Creek kings displayed at museums and showed them off with pride. In both cases, they said, “Richard, this could be one of your ancestors.” For most Southeastern Indian descendants, the big gripe was the storage of thousands upon thousands of skeletons by museums and universities for no reason at all . . . other than that their archaeologists had brought them home to play with along with potsherds.
Here is the complaint by the Creeks and Uchees in Southeast Georgia and southern South Carolina. Their elite were often buried in mounds, but not always. Most of their ancestors were buried in cemeteries that could cover several acres. When a construction contractor or archaeological dig encounters burials, a law enforcement officer (usually a deputy or state ranger) is supposed to be contacted. Then the county coroner is called in to determine if the skeleton is the victim of a crime, a burial in a forgotten cemetery or a much older burial. If the burial is determined to be Caucasian or African-American, the remains are interred at a nearby cemetery. If the burial is Native American, the State Council of American Indian Concerns notifies the tribal cultural preservation offices of the Eastern Band of Cherokees in North Carolina, the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, the Keetoowah Band of Cherokees in Oklahoma, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama and the Seminole Tribe of Florida of the burial. If they don’t claim the skeleton . . . no one seems willing to tell us where the skeleton goes. Apparently, none have gone to new cemeteries near where they were found.
Here is the problem. Congress set up NAGPRA as a process handled only by federally-recognized tribes. That might work out West, but in the Southeast, many Native Americans elected to stay put and assimilate with their neighbors, since culturally they were not that different. Both they and their white neighbors were “civilized”, predominantly farmers and artisans, plus had similar religious beliefs.
Initially, some idiot in the US Department of the Interior labeled most of the Southeast, except Florida as always being, occupied since the beginning of time, by the Cherokees. The map showed all of Florida being occupied by the Seminoles since the beginning of time . . . when in fact, the Seminoles are merely Creeks, who moved to Florida in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The Cherokees don’t even appear on any map until 1715. The Muscogee-Creek Nation raised Hell about this. The Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations didn’t raise Hell enough.
As a “compromise” Congress still labeled a vast area of the Southeast as always being occupied by the Cherokees . . . even the lands ceded by the Chickasaws in 1818! Most of the Southeastern tribes, including the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Alabama, Uchee, Shawnee, Saponi and Catawba are not even on the new map that Congress adopted. The Creeks were only given a shadow of their traditional territory. Most of the Southeast, including the area around Ocmulgee National Monument, was labeled “Unknown Tribal Affiliation.” Keep in mind that there was a Creek village directly adjacent to Savannah until the American Revolution!
So we have a situation today, where Caucasian and African-American burials go to cemeteries near their previous burials. Native American burials go “who knows where?” If pinned to the wall, federal bureaucrats in Washington, DC will cite the fact that a handful of non-Cherokee, Pre-Colonial Era skeletons, relocated from the boundaries of Lake Tellico, Tennessee, were re-buried beneath a fancy stone monument and labeled “Cherokee.” However, the truth is that thousands of skeletons in the Southeast have “just done disappeared” after being excavated by contractors or archaeologists since NAGPRA became law in 1991.
In southern Georgia and the Low Country of South Carolina, close kin of Native American remains found in burials are typically living nearby. The only exception is along the South Atlantic Coast. The coastal tribes were not ethnic Muskogeans, but their remnants moved to the Lower Chattahoochee River and joined the Creek Confederacy.
What we hear is that many Chickasaw, Shawnee, Creek, Cusabo and Uchee skeletons are being secretly cremated. Do you see Colonial Period Caucasian and African-American skeletons “disappearing?” No, they are reburied with fanfare by the Daughters of the American Revolution, black church congregations or whoever. HOWEVER, mixed Native American and African skeletons are probably going to be classified Native American . . . so they will disappear too.
Problem is not limited to the Coastal Plain of South Carolina and Georgia
The caller from Southeast Georgia was not the first person to complain about this problem. It is endemic in the Southeast. I can speak firsthand about what happened to my own family’s Creek and Uchee ancestors, whose remains were in cemeteries marked by stones near the Upper Savannah River.
There is a large concentration of families with substantial Creek and Uchee ancestry along the Savannah River in Anderson, Abbeville, Barnwell, Allendale, Hampton and Jasper Counties in South Carolina, plus Hart, Elbert, Wilkes, Lincoln, Colombia, Screven and Effingham Counties in Georgia. The reason is that indigenous peoples were pushed to the western edge of South Carolina in the late 1600s and early 1700s then enjoyed generally warm relations with Georgia throughout the 1700s and early 1800s. These Creeks and Uchees generally sided with Great Britain in the Anglo-Cherokee War and with the Patriots in the American Revolution. My Creek ancestors were friends and neighbors of the famous patriot, Nancy Hart.
During the American Revolution, a half-breed Tory, Alexander McGillivray, took control of the western Creeks and moved the capital to British-controlled Pensacola, Florida. He then dispatched band of Loyalist . . . and later, Chickamauga Upper Creeks to attack the Patriot Creeks living in eastern Georgia and western South Carolina. Most people don’t this, but the Upper Creeks were attacking Patriot Creeks in Northeast Georgia as late as 1793. The Patriot Creeks intentionally invited white families to live among them so that Upper Creek raids would be co-defended by white militia. There were several times, when my Creek ancestors fought behind the palisades of Wilkes County forts with their white neighbors. They considered themselves to be Creeks, but from that time on, cut off all ties with the Creek Confederacy. Patriot Creek families continued to intermarry with each other on into the early 20th century.
When Lake Hartwell and Lake Russell were constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, perhaps thousands of mostly Creek and Uchee burials were disturbed. The Southeast’s acidic soils typically dissolve skeletons into bits of bone after a thousand years. Those bone fragments are undoubtedly under the waters of these reservoirs now. However, the more intact skeletons were taken home to play with by the archaeologists.
Many of my grandmother’s ancestors from the 1700s and 1800s were buried in a Creek Methodist cemetery in Ruckers Bottom. Most of the the graves were only marked with stones, but that is the case for almost all rural cemeteries in the Lower Southeast during that era. The Native American burials included three mikkos, who signed the 1773 Treaty with Great Britain and several more Patriot veterans of the American Revolution. We know all their names.
My grandparents were never notified that the graves of their ancestors were being excavated by archaeologists working for the US Army Corps of Engineers, even though they only lived a few miles away. It probably would have never dawned on my grandmother that she was supposed to have a role in the procedure, even if she had known. The archaeologists quickly recognized the distinct differences of Creek skeletons. They were set aside and sent to an unknown anthropology departments for educational uses, while the Corps of Engineers created a new cemetery for the white burials in Ruckers Bottoms.
Our family knew nothing about the fate of our ancestors until I was visiting Moundville Mounds, Alabama in 2005. At the time, the local press was making a big to do over the creation of a mass burial for 168 Georgia Creek Indians. The skeletons had been stored at an un-named university for three decades. The State of Georgia didn’t want them and said they were Cherokees so the Cherokees should bury them. The skeletons had been offered to the North Carolina Cherokees, but the Cherokees were not interested in burying them on their reservation. That got me curious . . . but curiosity turned to shock. The skeletons were from Ruckers Bottom. They were my ancestors. The mixed jumble of bones were dumped into a mass grave and covered with dirt . . . at a location 300 miles from where they lived.
A basic standard under our constitution is equal protection under the law. The same laws that require re-interment of Caucasian and African human remains apply to Native American remains, but are being side-stepped by some archaeologists and bureaucrats, who are pretending to comply with NAGPRA. Law enforcement officials know this, but they can’t do anything about it without your help.
It is well within the designated powers of state and local governments to pass laws and implement procedures that recognize the local burials of Native Americans as being the ancestors of persons living nearby. This is especially true of the vast areas of the Southeast that Congress labeled “Unknown” in the NAGPRA map. As long as states follow the procedures of NAGPRA, but re-inter the skeletons in the communities where they were found, no federal laws are being violated. However, human remains must be re-interred . . . not cremated and the ashes poured in a pit.
To stop this nonsense of our ancestors remains being carted off to who knows where, Native American descendants will have to become more active in the public arena and specifically request help from elected state and local officials. We need state laws and local ordinances, which recognize the fact that in the Lower Southeast a vast number of Native Americans did not move to the Indian Territory. They stayed put. Their descendants still live in the region today. The treatment of their burials should not be in the hands of tribal bureaucrats living as far as a thousand miles away or in tribes totally unrelated. The entire process should be localized just like Caucasian and African-American burials.
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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