This past week, hundreds gathered at Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site to close a chapter in the Native American history of our region. They witnessed a ceremony honoring the reburial of the remains of Mississippian-era mound builders who lived in our area almost a thousand years ago. For over 50 years, the owners of the land that now makes up the historic site displayed them as part of a tourist attraction called Ancient Buried City.
They were removed in 1991 and finally laid to rest last summer. The ceremony gave many who attended a sense of peace, as well.
The sky is clear blue at Wickliffe Mounds as a crowd of young and old gather for the public ceremony. Chairs and a podium are set up near one of the mounds. It’s a relatively small grassy hill, no more than three feet high. But it’s impossible to watch the ceremony without seeing the mound, a reminder of the history of this site.
Wickliffe Mounds has been a popular tourist attraction since the 1930s, first as privately owned land, then belonging to Murray State University and now to the Kentucky state parks. For many, like Richard Young, one memory about the mounds stands out.
“As a very young child, I was brought to the mounds by my parents, and remember very vividly seeing the human remains on display," said Young.
“The idea that you could display human remains and charge admission for that, was disgusting, was disgraceful to me," said Keel.
Jefferson Keel is the Lt. Governor of the Chickasaw Nation, the last Native Americans to own land in western Kentucky. Keel says he doesn’t have a problem with archeologists studying Native American land for scientific discovery. It’s the lack of respect for human bodies that bothers him.
“We had to change the way people were thinking, and the attitude towards this displaying of these human remains because a lot of people don’t think there’s anything wrong with that," he said.
Murray State archeology professor Kit Wesler was one of the first in his field to recognize the need to respect Native American graves. Wesler took over Wickliffe Mounds in the early 1980's. He says almost immediately, Native American advocates began contacting him about getting the bodies taken off display.
“What the Native Americans had been telling me was if you want to go study the history of white people or black people or Asian people in North America, you go to a history museum," said Wesler. "But if you want to study the past of Native Americans, you go to a natural history museum, where they’re displayed right next to stuffed animals and dinosaur bones. And there’s a fundamental double standard there.”
Wesler says as an archeologist it was tough for him to come to terms with the idea of reburial.
“From the archeological point of view, reburial represents a loss of data. Because we don’t know what new techniques will be developed in 10 or 20 years that could give us a lot more data from any set of artifacts or remains that we might have," said Wesler. "So once we rebury them, we can no longer study them."
Wesler says he changed his mind when he started to think of the Native Americans burial sites as family graves, instead of artifacts. Wesler says since then he’s worked to strike a balance between archeological research and respect for the dead. Working with students, he cataloged the details of the bones, and then rewrapped them for reburial. Wickliffe Mounds manager Carla Hildebrand says Wesler’s research means the historical information about the remains will never be truly lost.
“But the actual bones are reburied back in the ground where they belong," said Hildebrand.
Many attendees called the public ceremony closure. Thomas Pearce, representative of the American Indian Movement, says he’s waited a long time to see the Wickliffe Mounds people laid back to rest. He hopes the ceremony will spark interest in the Native American culture.
“I think that if non-Indians want to know about Indian people, they should just ask them because we’re a living people. We’re here today. We haven’t gone anywhere, we’re not going anywhere. And we love to educate people about our ways and our culture," said Pearce.
The crowd falls silent as five Chickasaw Dancers come out to perform in honor of the dead. As they circle and sing, someone points up to the sky. Three eagles have appeared in the blue above, circling with the dancers. …. When the ceremony ends, … the eagles are gone.
To Pearce, their presence is more than a mere coincidence.
“Those were the spirits of our people. So this is a very important thing that happened here today," he said.
WKMS reporter Shelly Baskin contributed to this report.