With three eagles and a red-tailed hawk circling overhead, an honoring ceremony was held August 23 for the ancestors of the Chickasaw and Absentee Shawnee nations who had been reburied at Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site in Wickliffe, Kentucky in June 2011.
The birds joined in when the dance began and left when it was over.
“It was really a pretty powerful moment,” Thomas Pearce, co-chairman of the Indiana/Kentucky chapter of the American Indian Movement (AIM), told Indian Country Today Media Network. “The second the Chickasaw started doing their honor dance, we all got sort of weepy.”
The ceremony was officiated by Lieutenant Governor Jefferson Keel of the Chickasaw Nation, as well as elders and tribal members from the Chickasaw and Absentee Shawnee nations.
For 61 years those remains had been on display to lure tourists to Wickliffe Mounds to spend a buck.
“The site was occupied about 1100-1350 A.D. It was a small village up here on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River,” Carla Hildebrand, Wickliffe Mounds manager, told WSIL TV. “They lived here, they farmed the river bottom lands, but they also buried their dead here with dignity and respect. In 1932 the site was privately owned and the owner excavated the mounds here and he had placed the burials on public display in what he thought was educational.”
Pearce has been fighting for the repatriation of Native American items alongside other AIM members for years.
He said it started with AIM protests in 1990 led by Vernon Bellecourt, White Earth Band of Chippewa, and Michael Haney, Seminole/Lakota, at the nearby Dickson Mounds Museum in Lewistown, Illinois that led to the remains at Wickliffe being repatriated.
“They risked going to jail for decades to say this wasn’t all right,” Pearce said. He also pointed out that soon after, in 1990 the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed.
According to Pearce, after the protest at Dickson Mounds, the remains at Wickliffe were removed and replaced with plastic replicas.
In 1992, Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar agreed to allow the reburial of the 237 sets of remains that had been on display at Dickson Mounds. Feelings were mixed, but Haney told the Chicago Tribune “we rejoice that our ancestors will now be treated with respect.”
Neither Bellecourt nor Haney got to see the reburial at Wickcliffe. Bellecourt walked on in 2007 and Haney in 2005.
But Pearce looked to them both as having started the process with their actions and knew they would be proud that the remains at Wickliffe were being respected as well.
“Never again will our people allow our ancestors or sacred sites to be used to provide entertainment for others. Though many problems have been solved by the passage of NAGPRA, other violations of our cultural heritage continue. Rampant development, massive strip mining operations, and grave robbing continue to this day,” Pearce said in a statement. “We will continue to work for a day when the Smithsonian Institute, every university, and college in this nation return the hundreds of thousands of remains, sacred spiritual and cultural artifacts. Museums across this country still hold millions of sacred pipes, bundles, items of clothing, and the personal property of many of our most revered leaders. We demand that it stop and recommit ourselves to working to see all desecration ended.”