By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
One Feather Staff
The ancestral remains of 86 individuals are being repatriated to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). They are from an archaeological dig in the northern part of Alabama in Lauderdale County.
“This is not the largest reburial that the THPO has completed, but it is quite a large number of ancestors amid a complex project,” said Miranda Panther, EBCI NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) officer. “I would say that this reburial has been one of the longest ongoing undertakings that we have participated in, as there have been numerous looting incidents throughout the years, delays in getting an inventory finalized, and unique protection considerations to be taken into account.”
Marianne Shuler, TVA senior specialist, archaeologist, and tribal liaison cultural compliance, said of the site, “1LU496 is a well-known significant archaeological site that contains over 9,000 years of occupation. The site was excavated by the University of Alabama in the late 1980s thru early 2000s and held multiple field schools to train archaeologists. This site became the focus of intense research into the earliest occupations of the Tennessee River Valley in north Alabama. The years of excavations that occurred at this site resulted in the removal of Native American ancestral remains and funerary objects.”
Panther spoke of the repatriation process, “We started the NAGPRA consultation for Lauderdale County, Alabama (1LU496) in June of 2020 with 15 other southeastern tribes. The consultation process was fairly routine, but it is of note that the NAGPRA assemblage from this site consists of both a pre-1990 collection (before NAGPRA was published) and a post-1990 collection. The three co-lead tribes on this project are the Cherokee Nation, the Chickasaw Nation, and the EBCI. EBCI THPO staff will be traveling to the site in mid-July to complete the reburial.”
Shuler spoke of the ongoing relationship between the TVA and federally recognized tribes. “Over the past 10 years, TVA has made great strides in the return of ancestral remains and other sacred items to federally recognized Indian tribes who once lived in the Tennessee Valley. Returning these ancestral remains and sacred items to tribes is required for federal agencies under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). To date, TVA has successfully repatriated over 9,000 ancestral remains and over 170,000 funerary objects to Tribes. We have made a lot of progress, but we still have more work to do to ensure all ancestral remains are returned to Tribes.”
She noted that all entities are working together against looting. “Following the archaeological field school, the cave became a target for illegal looting. Unpermitted removal and excavation of archaeological resources is a felony offense under the Archaeological Resource Protection Act. Illegal excavations were documented at the site in 2008, 2012, 2017, and 2019. This looting destroyed most of the remaining intact archaeological deposits and desecrated ancestral remains and funerary objects. Unfortunately, TVA was unable to identify any suspects in their investigations.”
Shuler added, “Looting and the desecration of Native American sites remains an ongoing issue on public lands in the United States and is of primary concern for Tribes and TVA. We work very closely with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Historic Preservation Office to combat looting and to promote the protection of archaeological resources. I am extremely appreciative of the EBCI THPO staff and their willingness to partner with TVA on this important work.”
While this is a definite success for the EBCI, the work continues.
Panther noted, “The EBCI THPO (Tribal Historic Preservation Office) is currently involved with approximately 110 other NAGPRA projects that are in different phases of completion. We have five to six additional reburial projects tentatively planned for the remainder of the year. Our office averages five to 10 reburials per year at different locations throughout the Southeast. We are looking forward to getting back to those pre-COVID levels. The THPO also has future reburials in process with TVA. We’re excited to continue our NAGPRA efforts with them.”
The largest repatriation to date for the EBCI THPO was in September 2018 when staff reburied the remains of 177 individuals and 616 associated funerary objects in Dover, Tenn. The remains and funerary objects were from eight sites in Kentucky and Tennessee and were housed previously at the Webb Museum at the University of Kentucky and the McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville.