American Indians say remains desecrated at Moccasin Bend

American Indians say remains desecrated at Moccasin Bend

July 13th, 2011 by Pam Sohn in News

Workers with Choctaw Transportation continued to reinforce the inner bank of Moccasin Bend while another scoop of dirt is dumped on the shore. The work is meant to protect against erosion due to high water levels.

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.


June 1994: The Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute board calls for public meetings on the issue of adding Moccasin Bend to the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, and the Friends of Moccasin Bend National Park is formed.

2002: Then-President George W. Bush signs legislation authorizing Moccasin Bend to become part of the National Park Service.

Feb. 20, 2003: New law adds about 780 acres of Moccasin Bend to the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, making it the Park Service's first archaeological district.

December 2010: Riverbank stabilization work is announced.

Source: U.S. Park Service, newspaper archives

An American Indian group claims Moccasin Bend Indian burial remains have been desecrated by a riverbank stabilization effort that was intended to save the graves and archaeological assets.

And the group is threatening a massive protest if the U.S. National Park Service and bank stabilization contractors for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers don't respectfully re-bury the remains and make changes to the project immediately.

"We're being told that remains were disturbed where they're working, and that they are not being protected and guarded," said Carl "Two Feathers" Whitaker, chief of the Nashville-based Native American Indian Movement.

In preparing the bank for a bargeload of riprap - rocks and other materials used to strengthen the bank - a centuries-old grave may have been uncovered along the heel of the riverbend, NAIM officials suspect.

Park Service officials and contractors say recent storms and the Tennessee River, not the bank stabilization project, washed out the grave.

Additionally, an archaeologist working for the company contracted to do the work also found a second grave that had been recently opened, apparently for looting.

Kent Cave, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park ranger and spokesman, said the NAIM is "misinformed."

"We found these things because this project was occurring. It wasn't a result of that [work]," said Jim Szyjkowski chief of resource management, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. "And this whole project ... is intended to protect against this kind of thing happening in the future."

Saving heritage

With every ripple and wave, the Tennessee River for decades has been scouring away about a foot a year of history and dignity from the toe and heel of Moccasin Bend's 12,000-year record of human habitation. The bend officially became known as Moccasin Bend National Archeological District, the newest unit of the nation's oldest military park, in 2003.

Last December, Park Service officials and former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, who had obtained funding for the bank stabilization project, unveiled the work plan, which began earlier this year.

The $3.2 million first phase of stabilization work covers just about a mile and marks the first publicly visible sign of progress on the newest segment of the nation's oldest national military park.

It also is what park officials and archeologists have termed the most critically needed stabilization along Moccasin Bend's 5.4-mile perimeter.

To stop the erosion, the plan called for the riverbank to be covered with a combination of riprap and fill dirt to raise the bank about 3 1/2 feet above the normal river level. The fill dirt will be planted first with grass, then with native plants to hold the soil against the river and runoff and to normalize the look of the river's edge.

To protect the hundreds of burials on what is known to have been an massive and important Indian village, no machinery has been allowed on the riverbank itself, park officials said. The riprap and fill dirt are handled from a barge in the river.

Even the trees that had to be removed along the bank before the work could begin were hand cut, not ripped from the bank as is done in normal stabilization projects. Then the tree trunks were hoisted by barge crane onto another barge and hauled away by river.

Nick Honerkamp, an archaeology professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, reviewed the Park Service plan.

"It's kind of a model for what should be done. And actually what has been done is a model, too. Everything is working the way it's supposed to work," he said.

More to do

Meantime, work is continuing to stabilize areas away from where the remains were found in mid-June.

Todd Roeder, chief park ranger for the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, said the site is under guard around the clock, and an investigation is under way involving the looted site.

The Tennessee River also keeps rolling, and it continues to eat away real estate and memories at the water's edge.

Roeder pointed Tuesday to an area of the riverbank that was scoured out by the water just above a section of newly laid fill clay that is being placed between the riprap base and the top of the ground at Moccasin Bend.

"That's a perfect scene of what's been occurring on the riverbank - how it's just kind of caved in. The bank is giving away almost on a daily basis," Roeder said.

Around the bend's perimeter, there are five more segments of the moccasin-shaped peninsula still exposed to the Tennessee River's random rage. Stabilization projects on the other five segments have not been funded. In 2004, one estimate to complete the work was about $6.5 million.

As for what happens now with the remains found on river bend, Cave and Roeder said park officials plan to meet today with representatives of the tribes who signed the park's stabilization work plan and memorandum of agreement.

After the remains were found, the Park Service called in the Southeastern Archaeological Conference and representatives of that group will present a report at the meeting with the tribes, Cave said.

Whitaker said he may try to attend the meeting, too. Even if he can't, he hopes the tribal representatives will insist the Park Service treat the remains respectfully and not use them for testing or exhibit.

"According to our Native American customs - and also the law - the remains are to be treated with great spirituality," he said. "And if it's not done that way we will have a large gathering there

"Think of it as like a drum getting closer and closer. We're waking up, and we're not going to be shoved around anymore. And our burials aren't either."