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Protection and documentation of Native American heritage sites

Protection and documentation of Native American heritage sites


Native American History is America’s History!

Now that it is not raining or snowing almost every day here in the Southeast, several People of One Fire members are again going out into their regions to document Native American heritage sites.  We started this effort several years ago, when we became aware that many important sites were being destroyed because local residents and planning officials were unaware that the sites existed.  We watched in horror on satellite maps as one large mound after another was bulldozed in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee by “limited liability partnerships” in order to grow more corn for ethanol tax credits.  Most of these town sites had actually been visited by professional archaeologists in the late 19th or 20th centuries, but their existence had been kept such a secret by the archaeological profession that within a generation or so, they were forgotten by the subsequent generations of archaeologists.

When Native Americans notified state historic preservation officials that human burials were being bulldozed in violation of federal and state laws . . . they did nothing. Tax credits should have been withheld by the IRS because of violation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), but neither the Department of the Interior nor the IRS gave us the time of day.  Many of those “limited liability partnerships” included state legislators and US Congressmen! 

Well, there is another problem.  About the only work that the current generation of private sector archaeologists are getting, involves the destruction of Native American heritage sites in the paths of transportation projects or public buildings. In truth, they have no financial incentive to protect the integrity of any of our architectural heritage. Nowadays, private sector developers, like those at Windover Pond, Florida, who excitedly stopped construction and financed long term archaeological investigations, are very rare indeed.

Nevertheless, we have found that Southern “regular folks” and most local officials are highly supportive of historic preservation efforts, whether they be old houses, Civil War trenches or Native American heritage sites.  The problem is that the planning officials don’t find out about the existence of the site until it is too late.  A developer applies for demolition, land disturbance and building permits.  Even if in a national historic district, the only real protection that a privately owned site has from immediate demolition is that either the owner wants to protect it or if there are human burials under the ground.  Fortunately, the ancestors of the Creeks and Seminoles buried their dead under the floors of houses. All states require the involvement of professional archaeologists in the relocation of historic cemeteries and  Native American burials.  Often that cost encourages developers to leave the burial sites undisturbed.

How we got this way

Beginning in the late 1940s, states began passing laws, which gave local governments increasing control of their environmental quality via planning and historic preservation regulations. The National Historic Preservation is legislation intended to preserve historical and archaeological sites in the United States of America. The act created the National Register of Historic Places, the list of National Historic Landmarks, and the State Historic Preservation Offices. It was signed into law on October 15, 1966, and is the most far-reaching preservation legislation ever enacted in the United States. The Community Development Block Grant program was enacted in 1974 by President Gerald Ford through the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 and took effect in January 1975.

The readers should understand that from the very inception of professional planning in the 1920s,  local planners and planning commissions were expected to be the vanguard for protection of archaeological sites and historic properties. This requirement is still written into all federal and state enabling laws, but largely ignored at the local level.  When I prepared the first comprehensive plans for Auburn/Opelika/Lee County, Alabama in 1976, I included a table of all known archaeological and historical sites in their jurisdictions.  This was required by law.  The purpose was to inform elected officials of these sites in advance so that they could be protected without doing financial harm to private land owners. Several years ago, when I spoke to the Lee County Historical Society, they were amazed that I knew much more about their archaeological sites than their own government officials.  The reason is that these sites are no longer, specifically mentioned in the county’s updated comprehensive plans.

By the end of the 1980s, almost all regional planning agencies and many local governments had professional historic preservation specialists on their staffs.  All state historic preservation agencies and some regional agencies had professional archaeologists on their staffs. Their salaries were subsidized by federal Community Development Block Grants, the Appalachian Regional Commission, historic preservation grants from the US Department of the Interior and the US Department of Transportation.  The National Park Service was very actively involved with providing technical assistance to regional and local agencies.

In the late 1990s,  archaeologists pressured state governments in the Southeast to seize the copies of the state archaeological site files that had been formerly deposited with all planning agencies. Henceforth, only state historic preservation agencies would know where the sites were.  In their minds, they were creating jobs for their peers in these state agencies.  In practice, the state governments hired maybe one or two young archaeologists to do the work previously done by hundreds of planners in their states.  It was impossible for these people to know an entire state intimately.  The change occurred shortly after I went from being Principal Planner of Cobb County, GA to being a private sector architect in another county.  I knew every major archaeological site in Cobb County.   I was eventually replaced six months later by an  Italian-American woman in her early twenties from New Jersey, who didn’t know diddlysquat about Georgia’s early history and who had no access to the archaeological site files. Almost all of Cobb County’s Native American mounds have been destroyed in the years since then.

The 9/11 terrorists attacks were used as excuse to virtually end direct federal assistance for historic preservation and archaeological surveys via Community Development Block Grants as much larger federal expenditures were applied to the military, plus state and local law enforcement agencies.  Local and regional historic preservation planners were typically assigned to regular planning job responsibilities in which historic preservation was something they would do, if they had the time.

The final death blow to governmental protection of Native American heritage sites occurred in 2008.  The Great Recession began in Georgia then spread to Florida and then to the rest of the nation.  It was triggered by a 2006 Georgia law which allowed mortgage companies to foreclose, if the home loan was more than 31 days past due and which forbade state judges from hearing foreclosure cases.  A legion of Georgia banks first eagerly foreclosed on pricey houses so their board members could buy and resell them for a profit. However, by 2007, their activities caused a collapse of the real estate values, which then caused Georgia to have more bank failures than any state in history.

When local and state tax revenue declined, the first employees laid off were historic preservation planners in local planning departments and regional agencies.  Most of those positions have never been refilled.  So today, there is no one minding the chicken coop . . . even theoretically.  Many Southeastern states fired all their professional employees at Native American historic sites or even closed these parks, but left the Civil War sites operating as normal.  Even today, the New Echota National Historic Landmark in NW Georgia is kept open by VOLUNTEERS.

One set of state laws that offer protection for Native American sites, still remain . . . and that is how you can help.   Private property owners are allowed to get property tax abatement and state income tax deductions for protection of prehistoric/historic sites, if these sites are defined by easements filed with the county clerk’s office.  The 2018 US Congress theoretically ended federal tax deductions for historic preservation easements and most other Middle Class deductions, but the subject was not specifically addressed in that law.  Your on-site research could have a very positive effect on a property owner’s tax bill.

Documentation Procedure

(1) Permission for access – Do not enter property not normally open to the public, without permission (preferably written) of the property owner.  State wildlife management areas, state forests and national forests are always open to the public, unless there is a forest fire hazard or crime scene.  Retail stores, state parks and county parks are open to the public during stated hours.   If you are a guest at a private campground or resort, you have paid for the legal right to visit and photograph historic/prehistoric sites on the property.  If you are not a paid guest or enter a public park, when it is closed, you are trespassing.

(2) Remote documentation –  If permission to enter a property is not obtained, you can document the site with Google Maps.  Google Maps has features which allow you to obtain the address, latitude, longitude, approximate area and approximate dimensions of major site features.

(3) Site disturbance – Do not remove or change anything in your view, unless given specific permission by the property owner. That includes removal of fallen limbs and leaves.  Do not dig into the ground or remove objects from the site.

(3) Title block – In the title block provide the following information:  name of archaeological site,  official state site number (if any), address, GPS coordinates,  altitude, property owner,  property owner’s address, date of survey and weather conditions.  There are now relatively inexpensive GPS measuring devices available on the internet.   Unless you pay for a special GPS app for your smart phone, the latitude, longitude and altitude on your Smart Phone screen can be off as much as 100 feet!

(4) Photographs – Take high resolution photographs of all visible physical features from North-South-East-West-birdseye perspectives.

(5) Sketch Site Plan –  Bring a measuring tape, grid paper pad, compass, pen/pencil and straight edge.  Prepare a sketch plan of the site after measuring it.  Include a north arrow in your drawing. Write the dimensions of all sides and height of the structures.  If the site seems to have astronomical functions, include the time of day and direction of the sun in the drawing.

(6) Field notes –  Writing the general circumstances and discoveries of your site visit can become very useful in the future.  People are amazed at the detailed information in my documentary videos on Teotihuacan.  Actually, in addition to taking over 2500 color slides and 300 photographs, while on my 1970 fellowship in Mexico, I maintained a daily journal . . . so I even know today where my Mexican girlfriend and I went on a date any particular day.  LOL   Seriously . . . sometimes the powerful oral memory of a Creek warrior can fail him.   I remembered going over the Pyramid of the Moon then across the countryside to Cerro Gordo.  Actually, when I finally had access to my journal again after eight years of homelessness,  I discovered something different.  On my third day at Teotihuacan, I climbed to the top of the Moon Pyramid again and suddenly had the urge to keep on going straight down, across the terrain and then up Cerro Gordo, but I couldn’t!  Access to the back side of the pyramid was forbidden.  Instead, I came back the next morning and walked directly from the bus stop, across the suburbs of Teotihuacan to Cerro Gordo.  I had an INAH photo ID, so I was NOT trespassing.  Actually, the soldiers guarding the fringe areas of Teotihuacan saw the photo ID dangling from my neck and so didn’t even bother to question what I was doing.  I looked official since I was carrying a large camera bag.  

(7) Copies – Keep the originals of your photos and field drawings in a save place.  Digitize copies of all documentation and send the digitized files to   I will put the pertinent information of a GIS base map, which we will be giving to state historic preservation agencies and the National Park Service.


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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.



    A collaboration between tribes and town boards is being used in New England. They rely on USET resolution 2003:022.

    • Thank you for that important information. For those who don’t know . . . USET means United South and East Tribes


    Richard, I have to disagree with you on the 9/11 “terrorist” attack…as the Government did not tell us the truth as who brought down those I beam steel towers. What We got was more cameras pointed at the American people than at the massive drug route of Mexico..and frisking American Grandma/Pa tells the tell of how lost the general public really is? Oh well…its like my Great Grandma said about the World if you want the truth about the world follow the money. On another note:

    Look at these Peruvian type stones…There must have been a stopping point of different peoples that entered into Mexico with a mass migration by ships according to this lore:

    • All I said was that 9/11 was used as an excuse to cut off funding for historic preservation and archaeological studies.


        True…the top 500 in the swamp did just that. What do you think about those same type of stone works as Peru and also the Mediterranean Sea area found in Mexico? Thank for your Articles.

        • I don’t know what to think. None of the archaeologists are asking these questions. They can’t deny that the petroglyphic boulders in the Copper Mountains of Mexico are identical to the Reinhardt Boulder in Georgia.


            Keep up the Good fight Richard. The Native peoples need to band together to demand the control over their Historic sites…and not controlled by the States. Georgia is an important location for the migrations of many peoples that did not all arrive from some kind of made up nonsense “magic path” in between glaciers…but the Natives peoples have always said peoples arrived by ships. As a Christian man have to say the 2 water signs in the East have to do with what the peoples on the Earth saw in the time of Noah. GOD bless…

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