Hundreds of Native American people disinterred by archaeologists at the historic Etowah Mounds in Northwest Georgia will be returned to their descendants with the cooperation of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
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Etowah is one of the most well-known of the so-called Mississippian mound cities in the Southeast. Those cities thrived in the centuries leading up to European colonization. The sites include Cahokia in Illinois, which is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization world heritage site. In Georgia, the Ocmulgee Mounds are now a National Historic Park. There are still about 100 major Mississippian sites.
Since the 1960s, displays of what was taken from the funeral mound have been the real draw to the state-run museum at Etowah in Bartow County, about 45 miles north of Atlanta. Two marble statues of human figures are probably the best-known Etowah objects, but displays also included art, jewelry and, at one time, human remains.
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"You know, these are very special items," said RaeLynn Butler, historic and cultural preservation manager for the Muscogee Nation, "but they're also funerary. And they were buried with ancestors."
That, says Butler and others, like Emman Spain, makes what came from the funeral mound sacred.
Spain is the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act coordinator at the Muscogee Nation. The act is the federal law under which tribes recover what was taken from them by archaeologists and museums, and it's the law under which the Georgia Department of Natural Resources is returning its Etowah collection to the Muscogee Nation.
Spain said the graves and repatriation act is ultimately about human rights, not objects.
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"Every human being has a right to be buried along with their property, except for Native Americans for some reason," Spain said. "I mean, you don't see that with Black communities. You don't see that with white communities."
Butler said some 400 people were disinterred from the funeral mound at Etowah over the course of archaeology there, plus some 187,000 related artifacts, the Department of Natural Resources estimates. The aim of the Muscogee Nation is to lay those people and their possessions to rest again.
That's complicated by the fact that what was taken from the funeral mounds is now split up among eight institutions, including the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University. Even the art collection at Emory University has Etowah items.
"And so it's going to take time for somebody, an archaeologist, or a bio-archaeologist, somebody who has experience identifying human remains and working with artifacts to go through these collections and to reunite the people with their belongings," Butler said.
That could take an estimated three to five years.
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In the 30-plus years since the passage of the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, some academics have balked at the idea that artifacts and even human remains should leave collections, saying that the removal process could rob the public of knowledge important to all of humanity.
Some push back on that argument.
"There is no right to knowledge," said Turner Hunt, tribal historic preservation officer for the Muscogee Nation. "As an academic, you have no right to try to come in and take anyone else's knowledge. And essentially, academics need to recognize that. And then things actually move forward."
Butler said centering the modern tribal perspective in the long arc of Etowah's history will be the aim at the new museum. She expects Muscogee educators to be consulted in exhibit design and for contemporary Muscogee art to be used to memorialize the funeral mound and reiterate the throughline from Etowah's history to its living descendants.
The Department of Natural Resources is behind what it called in a news release a transformation of the Etowah museum that it expects to run through the spring.
"Changes to the museum reflect a growing cultural shift that takes emphasis off artifacts and focuses on Indigenous people who thrived and were stewards of the land," reads the release.
Butler said there are also plans to build what she calls an ancestral educational cultural center in nearby Cartersville, well off the footprint of the Department of Natural Resources land holdings. That's part of a larger strategy at the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma for re-establishing its physical presence at some of the most important cultural sites in the Muscogee homelands in the Southeast.
Hunt said one day that should include the Kolomoki Mounds in Southwest Georgia.
"They've built their museum into a mound, basically an open burial tomb," Hunt said, "Which is basically, for lack of a better phrase, a constant desecration of a burial."
Kolomoki, like Etowah, is managed by the state of Georgia.