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Law provides few protections for Indian mounds

When it comes right down to it, the good will of private landowners is often what stands between saving Indian mounds and losing these pieces of ancient history.


“There are no legal obligations regarding mounds on private property, as long as the owners don’t disturb any burials that might be there,” said Linda Hall, a state archaeologist based in Asheville.

In the case of Cowee Mound, preservation efforts by the Hall family ensured its survival. The family owned the mound for 175 years until the death of Katherine Hall Porter in 2002. The mound then passed to her husband, James Porter. He and his heirs worked with the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians to make sure that it would be protected.

Though there are other examples in Western North Carolina of private owners protecting mound sites, many have been lost. Hall said she’s aware of 15 mound sites west of Asheville. Of those, at least two have been excavated or graded to obliteration.

“Probably most mounds are on private property,” Hall said. “(Cowee Mound) is just so commendable, how the different organizations worked together. It is a great resource for the future.”

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The law

North Carolina’s Unmarked Human Burial and Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act requires that anybody “knowing or having reasonable grounds to believe” human skeletal remains are being disturbed notify the county’s medical examiner. If the remains are discovered because of construction or plowing, those activities must cease immediately. Work can’t resume without the state’s go-ahead.

If the remains are archaeologically significant — not a modern skeleton, in other words — the state archaeologist’s office is in charge. State archaeologists have 48 hours to make arrangements with the landowner to either protect or remove the remains. At the end of the 48-hour period, the law states the chief archaeologist “shall have no authority over the remains” and can’t stop the resumption of work on the property.

In this area, the Eastern Band gets notified if state archaeologists determine skeletal remains are Native American. The tribe and state reach an agreement on skeletal analysis and disposition.

That’s about all that governs private landowners. Otherwise, state law leaves it to an individual’s conscience, urging people “to refrain from the excavation or destruction thereof and to forbid such conduct by others.”


Lost history

No one knows how many Indian mounds exist, or how many have been lost, noted Russell Townsend, tribal historic preservation officer for the Eastern Band.

Cyrus Thomas of the Bureau of American Ethnology attempted in the 1890s to catalogue mounds, but Townsend said many were never discovered and listed.

“I don’t know that an accurate count of mounds has ever been found,” he said.

Townsend said the tribe is currently protecting four mounds, plus working to help save more, including Spikebuck Town Mound and Village Site in Hayesville. Like Nikwasi Mound in Franklin, Spikebuck is publicly owned. And the Eastern Band owns and protects Kituwah Mound near Bryson City.

Both Kituwah Mound and Peachtree Mound in Cherokee County were significantly reduced in size from years of plowing.


What were they?

Mounds aren’t fully understood, but what is agreed is their service as focal points for towns and communities.

“They had religious as well as civil significance,” Townsend said. “You can see these purposes varying from region to region, culture to culture, and they evolved over time.”

Mounds weren’t necessarily used for burials, though they could be. And to further confuse things, platform mounds — with straight sides and a structure on top — were sometimes built on top of the more humped burial mounds, Townsend said.

The tribal preservation officer pinpointed the primary mound-building period as taking place during the Mississippian culture from about 900 A.D. to 1650 A.D. They stopped being built shortly after contact with Europeans occurred.

Cowee Mound was the center of a large Mississippian community that evolved into a large Cherokee town, he said. Cowee served as the business capital of the Cherokee world.

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