UNC-CH anthropologists return remains, artifacts to Cherokees

September 30, 1999

CHAPEL HILL -- Complying with both the golden rule and federal law, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill archaeologists last week returned numerous human remains and prehistoric artifacts unearthed between 1966 and 1985 in the mountains to the Eastern Band of Cherokees, an N.C. Indian tribe.

Included were skeletons and partial skeletons of 58 ancient people believed to have been ancestors of the Cherokee and 1,034 artifacts, mostly pieces of pottery, shell and beads buried with the dead many centuries ago.

"In 1990, Congress passed a law called the Native American Grave Protection Repatriation Act that required all museums, universities and government agencies to inventory their archaeological collections," said Dr. Vincas P. Steponaitis, director of UNC-CH's Research Laboratories of Archaeology.

"The law covered human remains and funerary and sacred objects," said Steponaitis, also professor of anthropology. "It required these institutions to determine, if possible, if there was a relationship between ancient cultures and modern federally recognized tribes. If cultural affiliations existed, then the tribes had the right to ask for the items back."

UNC-CH completed its inventory in 1995. The Eastern Band of Cherokees formally requested return of materials uncovered near Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C., during a 20-year archaeological collaboration between UNC-CH and the college.

Human remains and artifacts turned over to James Bird of the Eastern Band were reburied quietly Monday (Sept. 27) at Swannanoa. They date to between 1,000 A.D. and 1,450 A.D. A memorial service is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday (Oct. 1) at Warren Wilson College.

"We support the Native American Grave Protection Repatriation Act and, in fact, were actively involved in the legislative process when the bill was running through Congress," Steponaitis said. "We also respect the Cherokees' wishes in this matter.

"At the same time, being archaeologists, we are very much aware that there is a tremendous amount of information that will be lost as a result of these artifacts and remains being reburied," he said. "Scholars and scientists keep coming back to archaeological collections for generations with new questions and new techniques. This particular collection is obviously not going to be available anymore, and that's just the way it is."

Much of what's known about pre-Colonial Cherokees during their Pisgah phase derives from the Warren Wilson site excavations directed in part by the late Roy Dickens, who earned his doctorate in anthropology at UNC-CH with the work.

Dickens later wrote a book titled "Cherokee Prehistory" and was Steponaitis' predecessor as director of the archaeology research laboratories.

"We much appreciate the cooperation of the University of North Carolina, which furnished us with a driver to return the remains and artifacts to Swannanoa," said Bird, a Cherokee who is the Eastern Band's director of cultural resources and historic preservation officer. "This has been a significant event in furthering favorable relationships between the university, the college and the Cherokee nation. Repatriation and reburial are acts of self-determination by the tribe and reinforces our sovereignty."

Two other federally recognized Cherokee tribes live in Oklahoma, descendents of people driven from their native lands in the western Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee in the winter of 1838-39. Enforcing a treaty signed during Andrew Jackson's presidency, Martin Van Buren instructed General Winfield Scott to force them to Oklahoma, a terrible journey in which some 4,000 people died. The exodus was later called the Trail of Tears. Bird's ancestors were among the hundreds of Cherokees who hid in the mountains and refused to be driven away.
Note: Steponaitis can be reached at (work) 919-962-3846 or (home) 933-2041.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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