Chickasaws Re-inter Indian Remains at Brentwood

By Richard Green

For August 2003 Times

The ceremony began last June 11 at 5:29 a.m., when the sun began creeping over the horizon in middle Tennessee. Remains of some 66 ancient Indian people, including men, women and children, and the objects they held most dear had been specially prepared to be re-buried by a delegation of Chickasaws led by Lt. Gov. Jefferson Keel. The remains and funerary items would be buried in a location not far from where they had been accidentally unearthed in 1997 when the town of Brentwood began construction of a new library.

The 45-minute ceremony consisted of prayers and songs, all in the Chickasaw language. Some in the delegation do not speak Chickasaw fluently, but it wasn’t important that they didn’t understand all of the speakers’ words. It was also not important to them that there was no scientific proof that some or all of these 66 individuals were ancestral Chickasaw.

On the other hand, they did understand the importance of the ceremony and considered it an honor to be there to assist. At the conclusion of the ceremony, they knew they had played a role in freeing the spirits of these thousand-year-old people to continue their journey.

Sometime around 1350 to 1450 A.D., the descendants of these Indian people abandoned their village that overlooked the river and flood plain beyond it. Because they lived in the Southeast between 900 and 1600 A.D., they are called Mississippian Indians by archaeologists. No one knows why this individual group abandoned their village. But their departure was characteristic of most other Mississippian groups during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Some were breaking away and some were moving en masse. They were not all moving simultaneously, but when they did, they were not only changing locations, they were changing the way they governed themselves.

The authoritarian chiefdom style of governing, represented sometimes by large earthen mounds, was disintegrating. As the Indians deserting the chiefdoms eventually amalgamated (to some extent) and settled into new villages, they emerged to the early European colonials as so many little republics.

Numerous possibilities have been advanced to explain why individual Mississippian villages like the one at Brentwood were abandoned. Some or all of the following factors may have contributed to what appears to archaeologists to be Indian people in flux across the Southeast. The people may have used up the supply of timber for their houses and fires, or they may have been vanquished in battle, or decided that they could no longer successfully defend their village. There may have been a killing outbreak of illness brought by the earliest white men, such as Hernando de Soto. Perhaps, a severe and prolonged drought resulted in famine. These or other devastating natural phenomenon might have led the priests to declare that the location was too polluted (or unsafe) for continued occupancy. At any rate, the archaeologists who did the excavating at the Brentwood Library site found no evidence that it had been occupied by anyone since the fifteenth century.

When the human remains and burial objects were unearthed, construction stopped and the state division of archaeology was contacted to do a survey. It was determined that only a portion of the Mississippian village would have to be excavated. The city of Brentwood obtained a routine court order from a local judge to "terminate the cemetery." This would permit the remains and artifacts that were impacted by construction to be removed and handed over to the state archaeologist so construction could continue. According to Tennessee law, the remains were required to be re-interred within a year, but there was no provision covering the funerary objects.

No Tennessee judge in anyone’s memory ever had refused to terminate an Indian cemetery. The reason was that the court would only allow opponents of the termination to testify in court if they could prove that they were direct descendants of the Indians buried in the cemetery. The Chickasaw Nation and others successfully challenged that precedent in another Tennessee court, claiming that Indians should be granted standing as credible witnesses to testify in opposition to the proposed termination. However, the state appeals court overturned the lower court’s decision.

The court order in Brentwood was signed by the judge about the time the Chickasaw Nation was alerted about the Brentwood excavation by undocumented Indians (no federally recognized tribes are located within Tennessee) who were observing the archaeologists. A Chickasaw historic preservation officer named Jerry Bray called the state archaeology office for a status report. Bray was told that state officials were handling the excavation in conformity with state law. Federal law didn’t apply because the land was not federal and no federal funding was involved. Bray told the archaeologist that the Chickasaws had a "substantial historical interest" in Tennessee and recommended that the tribe be consulted. The official was polite, but let Bray know that the state could look after its own affairs.

Feeling that some of the prehistoric remains could be ancestral Chickasaw, then Lt. Gov. David Brown wrote Nick Fielder, Tennessee state archaeologist, asking him to arrange a meeting of the principals in Brentwood. Brown and Jefferson Keel, then an aide to Gov. Anoatubby, represented the Chickasaws. While Fielder said there was no archaeological evidence that Chickasaws ever settled in the Brentwood area, he did consider "the Chickasaw tribal government to be a potential claimant" to the material under federal provisions because their historic hunting lands extended into middle Tennessee.

Gov. Anoatubby sent Brown and Keel to Brentwood because he felt that any time human remains "could be those of our forefathers, we have an obligation to do something." The Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes asked the Chickasaws to represent them in Brentwood. Other potential claimants recognized by Fielder, the Shawnees and the Eastern Band of the Cherokees, also asked the Chickasaw to take the lead in the effort to re-bury the remains and artifacts together.

Fielder’s references to tribal claims notwithstanding, the Chickasaws did not claim nor would not claim the remains and burial objects. Gov. Anoatubby only desired to re-bury them together. In his affidavit filed in the Brentwood case, Fielder stated that the artifacts would be held by the archaeology division and eventually be made available to claimants under federal law.

Removal of the remains and artifacts from the library site took about three months and cost Brentwood more than $100,000, and some negative publicity when a local Indian group, the Alliance for Native American Indian Rights, used the media to charge that while Brentwood officials talked about minimizing the removal of burials, their number one goal always was to finish the building on time.

Even before the library’s construction was completed, discussions were held to find ways to help prevent such confrontations in the future. One recommended way was to amend the state burial law. Invited to testify before a Tennessee legislative committee, Jefferson Keel recommended that the law be changed to permit the re-burial together of human remains and burial goods that were found collectively. In due course, the legislature accepted the recommendation and amended the law. At about the same time, Brentwood officials, wanting to put the negative episode behind them, asked a local district court to permit re-burial of all excavated material. When the request was granted, nothing remained except to settle on a location and time.

The Chickasaws needed time to think about the type of reburial ceremony that would be most fitting. When Indians were laid to rest ceremonially a thousand years ago or three hundred years ago, there was no thought that one day a re-burial ceremony would be needed. The ceremony that was devised was similar to earlier re-burial ceremonies that had been held twice involving historic Chickasaw remains from the Tupelo, Mississippi area.

The Chickasaw Nation repatriation committee agreed that the ceremony would be private, and that no details of the ceremony should be made public. Most of the committee members had participated in earlier reburial ceremonies. Lt. Gov. Keel says this was his third such ceremonial and that he hopes to be involved in them for as long as he can. As the tribe’s new director of cultural resources, Eddie Postoak participated in his first. He became director of cultural resources last February. "It was a good feeling to be helping, but it was a very solemn occasion," he says, adding that he visited with certain elders for advice before taking part.

Both Postoak and Keel agree there will be more such ceremonies. The amended state law should facilitate relations between the tribe and state of Tennessee. But the biggest problem now is the enormous amount of on-going construction in the Nashville area and the tiny number of observers who will alert the tribe or government agencies when developers begin destroying ancient Indian cemeteries.

Last Updated: 09/11/2014