WE ARE FOUR citizen employees of the Chickasaw Nation driving from Oklahoma to the Wickliffe Mounds to be present at the return of our ancestral bones to the earth. This repatriation of Chickasaw bodies will take place in what has been called the “Vacant Quarter,” in the far west corner of Kentucky. In truth, this environment has never been one of absences. Since as far back as Mississippian times, many inhabitants have lived at this junction of rivers, but the people and the mounds they built have been largely unremembered in the constant tumble of history. Using the words of our elder writer Meridel LeSueur, we are here in this mound village region to “remember the dismembered,” to tend to the dismembered bones of our ancestors and the return of their remains into the earth.
We approach the mound site in June, after major flooding of the Mississippi. Rapid snowmelt in the north and recent heavy rainfall has overfilled the river. Earth shines with water as we drive. Many crops are destroyed. Trees stand surrounded by water, reflecting blue sky. It seems, as we travel, that we drive through the clouds. Buildings are sandbagged with white bundles of earth piled high. Other homes and businesses reveal their water marks, the doors now open to the clear sky and heat of the sun. I consider the land before towns and urban lives, the many villages filled with inhabitants. Several other mound sites are close to the original seven mounds at Wickliffe. Old trails to other Native villages were, at one time, worn into the ground. Along the river and its tributaries, Native people traveled to large ceremonial sites such as Cahokia, as well as to many trading locations.
The earthen mounds — built for ceremonial, religious, and numerous other purposes — are one small part of our ancient lives “before written history.” As part of the system of earthworks along many bends in the Mississippi and her tributaries, the Wickliffe site represents a late part of Mississippian history and was inhabited by our people for only 250 years, from 1100 to 1350 CE.
The Wickliffe mound builders were unique, a relatively small population of just over three hundred people at most. They lived on a bluff above the great river, which was filled with numerous bellowing alligators, sunning turtles, and enormous gar swimming over the mussel shells. It is a different river now, but it is still a significant flyway for many migratory birds. Somewhat hidden, this place surely offered refuge to travelers and traders, as well as safety for the long-term inhabitants. For the most part, people here cultivated plants, and their primary knowledge was of food plot agriculture. Also, from the remaining ceramics — funnels, jars, and bowls — I would think that nut oil was one of their specialties, probably even a valuable trade item. Nut trees are still in abundance here.
The simultaneous growth of the Mississippian mound centers remains a mystery. Some were as large as cities, and all developed at the same time in different sites along the river and tributaries. Some mounds were created inland, as well, like those in Wisconsin and Nebraska and the well-known Spiro Mounds of Oklahoma. Even more mysterious are the thousands of effigy mounds shaped as animals: panthers, serpents, and birds, even the seventy-foot-high bird at Poverty Point in Louisiana. Significantly, all were aligned with the movements of the sun, cycles of the moon, and constellations. It was a world built with great astronomical knowledge and geometrical precision. We had a kind of intelligence then that may have been lost over the centuries of chaos, wars, and forced removal that followed for our Southeastern nations.
Later, when squatters and settlers arrived, many mounds were plowed and flattened for planting. Most information on earlier habitation went unrecorded.
AS WE TURN onto the museum drive, I notice the forests of trees that bear foods — oaks with acorns for meal, hickories for the traditional milk and sweet cream documented by early botanists, nut oils to mix with stews and other foods — although in this time it is a new generation of trees grown up from the same earth. We have finally arrived to pay our respects before our ancestors are buried deep within a mound.
Inside the museum at Wickliffe is a collection of artifacts. Among the objects and animals important here are the tree dwellers: a clay possum as well as an owl, the symbol most connected to the Wickliffe Mounds. Various sizes of duck bowls honor the waterfowl that were, according to bone studies, a staple of the diet. Beside these are the practical bowls of daily use, circular and made of clay mixed with ground mussel shell, a Mississippian trait. The shell is visible in the cracks of broken clay.
Also on display in the small, well-kept museum is a framed weaving in the main entry, and other weavings throughout. I think these are of special importance. It is hard to find our old woven materials because humid weather and mold decay fiber and bark quickly in this southern climate. We can’t know how much of our lives has become a part of the land again, but this remaining piece of cloth is lovely, the weaving thick and decorated with rectangular clay beads. I think of the weavers in a busy community with those making clay bowls and funnels for draining nut oil or juices, people bringing in large amounts of white clay for placing on their dwellings, the gardeners at work. The homes themselves were of a style called “daub and wattle,” such awkward words for beautiful homes of willow and clay. As in other locations, the floors were painted with a sacred circle, the walls of white clay painted with birds, vines, leaves, and colorful flowers.
The structures seem to have been inspired by the wasps that probably lived inside them easily and often. I think of the search for honey in bee trees and other locations where a swarm remained long enough to leave sweetness behind. I think, there was sweetness in this life. And the people were intelligent enough to leave some for the bees to feed on in winter, an exchange for the honey. They even learned during events of drought to rob a vole’s nest of beans, leaving corn in its place for the animals to eat. We made our trades fairly.
Inside and out, the people lived in beauty.
IT IS an especially hot day. We watch as boxes ironically labeled DOLE BANANA are carried into the wooden structure that now covers the dig and burial site. The boxes contain bundled bodies.
The people of Wickliffe show none of the bone trauma that bodies from war zones would. This supports the theory that theirs was an egalitarian society, not a community of warriors. The bones have been cleaned, identified, and autopsied with care by archaeologist, writer, and scholar Kit Wesler and his team — some volunteers, some students — since 1984. Wesler, who has overseen this project for the duration, is in charge of the return of bodies. One woman tells me she has also helped since the beginning.
Wesler has researched history, treaties, and ceded land, and met with members of the Five Tribes. This beautiful forested land was ceded by the Chickasaws during the 1818 Jackson Purchase, and although little remains of the older historical record here, Wesler’s information shows that, according to the treaties, we are the people most likely to have dwelt at Wickliffe. He is scrupulous and exacting in his work. He also has the desire to bring together the living indigenous people of today with those of the past, asking about customs and seeking other information.
As for the burial, Wesler has diligently mapped the locations of artifacts and bones that have been collected together in perfect muslin bundles, numbered and bound. The boxes are piled inside the building, and the ground is prepared, numbered to match the bones that will rest in those places, matching the map showing from where they were most likely removed. The site itself has indentations where bodies once lay, the ribs and skulls configured into the earth itself, places where the feet rested still visible, the hands all become a permanent imprint on earth.
IN THE BEGINNING of our first morning, the bones are taken from boxes, one at a time. A few days’ work seems hardly enough for the burial of 250 bodies, but it goes quickly with the help of many students and volunteers, including the one who has worked on cleaning the bones since 1984, a dedication I appreciate. She is handing white bundles to two men who are standing in the prepared burial ground. They walk among cement pedestals beside nearly black walls of earth in something of a labyrinth. The bodies are placed in their numbered locations. One bowl is set down. It is a pinch-pot, not yet shaped or finished, as if made by a child. Still, it was left with the body, a tribute to the person who made or cared for it, perhaps a gift from their own beloved child. Only a few pots will be placed in the dig. It is rare to find them or other grave goods with the bodies here. Along the edges of the labyrinth, the ground is covered carefully with muslin in shades of blue, white, and beige, stark against such dark earth. I ask Kit why these are placed here. He tells me they hide the bones of those who weren’t taken out of the earth or displaced, some of which remain visible.
Some of the bodies have a bit of wood remaining at their feet, as though they may have been contained in a box or in bark. One female has the richest and greatest number of items buried with her. Perhaps she was a beloved woman, a keeper and planter of medicines. Perhaps, I must say, wary of creating a story as others have done, changing our true histories.
Those who lived here moved from this homeland at the same time the other Mississippians moved from their dwellings along the waterways, leaving behind mounds and pyramids that took much of their time to build, and abandoning thriving cornfields and rich hunting grounds. Later, when botanist William Bartram came through the Southeast asking about the mounds, the Indian people just told him they were built by the ancient ones. That was a few centuries later, but still, they must have known something. If the Maori remember ancestors at least eighteen generations past, our people have had no lesser memory.
Much history from east of the Mississippi is now lost because of early colonization, the numerous European wars on our lands, and the development of farming and grazing after our removal to the west side of the river. Some of our dwelling places are silent, bulldozed, but because of the ancient mounds here, barely visible from the river, Wickliffe was of interest for some and a source of riches for looters.
Looting or collecting materials from the sacred mounds on our lands has long been a problem, but the Wickliffe site is singular in its long and twisted history of theft and desecration of the many bodies buried here. The remains of our tribal ancestors were removed from their resting places and comprised a gruesome display in a circus tent from the 1930s until as late as 1991, when the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed, a piece of human rights legislation requiring Indian graves and bodies to be protected as non-Indian graves have been. In the 1930s the Wickliffe Mounds were “owned” by a showman, amateur archaeologist, and “collector” named Fain King, who bought the land, then charged people to view the bones, calling it the “Ancient Buried City.”
This kind of display of Native bodies was not rare in the past. Many of our artifacts and our worlds are still held in the homes of others, collected, sold on the black market, subtracted from history. They are haunted by the present, by those who hoard and keep them. Their return to earth is a significant event, only one return of many of our losses, and a way to show great care for the bodies of human beings whose remains were treated without integrity or respect.
THE HEAT INSIDE the structure covering the burials is wearing. After some time, I leave to sit outside with one of the researchers, Dr. Carolyn Morrow, and we talk about Mississippian iconography and its correlation to the Mayan’s, a theory of connections many now resist, although at one time it had popularity among researchers. I note the many similarities, as does Dr. Morrow, but I am interested in all the stories and haven’t held to a single one.
As we sit in the shade and visit, two red cardinals chase each other from tree to tree. Usually, this place in a major river flyway would be busy with birds. Today, perhaps, they have retreated to flooded areas or the deeper forest because of the hot weather.
Sitting in the shade of the trees, it is easy to pass through time and see the people who lived here grinding corn, which became the staple of their diet. Or to see them gathered beneath the night sky sharing stories, pointing out constellations that are not Greek but indigenous, traditional, fitting together with the deep mythology of the people, as sky stories do. It is easy to see these same people walking through dark forests no longer present and listening to the night birds, seeing the silent flight of the owl, so necessary to the survival of the crops, to keeping the population of rodents in check.
By daylight, the people would work in their cornfields, planting beans and squash, moving the cradleboards of their infants away from sunlight or smoke. I think of how my own grandmother chewed food and then placed it into her children’s mouths. I imagine this is how the infants here were fed in the early days. And in the evening there were those who came in from the canoes on the fast-moving river. These people are not just white numbered bundles. They are those who were active, laughing and talking, skin and muscle, artists painting the inner walls of their homes, cooking with hot stones in the ground, or over fire, listening to the songs of wind in the old growth trees. Evidence from charcoal remains show red cedar here among oak, astragalus, and hickory, along with various pollens. Near the river, as in other river-bottom areas, were more oaks, as well as cottonwood, gum, pecan, and cypress.
The names of the trees now present are written beside them: eastern hemlock, hackberry, red cedar, and then a single large Norwegian pine. None of these are the first-growth roots that knew the bones and contents of this earth.
WE RETURN to the burial site to watch as the white bundled people of our earth are now returned to the black richness, a darkness that makes luminous the white containers of those who lived here. I ask Kit Wesler about a bundle he is placing. He says they don’t know how she died, but she was in her twenties. He knows the people, and he knows them as people. He is unique, a sensitive and humane archaeologist in his labors.
The bones of children are not being buried here with the bones of the adults. They will be placed later in a different mound where between fifty and sixty children were found. Infants were found in another location. It is not yet known where the elders were buried. All together, 856 bodies previously exposed or on display have been recovered from this region. In these two days we will see the return of 265 of them, originally buried at different times and in different levels of earth.
When Congressman Morris Udall sponsored the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, he said, “In the larger scope of history, this is a small thing. In the smaller scope of conscience, it may be the biggest thing we have ever done.” Now that the act has been passed, many bones are still being returned, either to the earth or to the people who have ceremonies for their dead before placing them in their ground. Native people have worked hard to see this return of our bodies and holy items, and to keep our traditional responsibilities toward them.
We seek out the mysteries of the past, amazed at the creations of these people, their intelligence and knowledge, and wanting to know why they abandoned their cities and mound creations at the same time across the entire region of waterways and tributaries. Entire lives are devoted to unraveling these mysteries. Here, like elsewhere, one hypothesis has been that a virus may have traveled the river. It is the most solid possibility anyone can yet claim, although a change in understanding of the world, a change in climate, or even the incredible appearance of the Crab Nebula in the sky might have been determining factors. Whatever the reason, their leaving was something we don’t yet understand.
THE BODIES ARE FINALLY IN PLACE, each one of them, in the places where they were originally buried and found, according to map and illustration. They will be covered with earth, slowly and carefully, by a special team. Once the first layer is on the burial site, and solid enough to walk on, another team will come in with earth to build the mound as much like the old one as possible. Then it will be planted with native grasses.
There is little to say after such a significant action as this. And while I occasionally criticize history and archaeology, this was a respectful return of people to the land by an archaeologist who wishes to communicate with us on his findings, to cooperate and share his information and knowledge. This is a rare thing. So is understanding the consciousness of a people at any time in history, but there is much to be said for those who seemed to be most egalitarian in their system of living, who worked together, who lived with what appears to be incredible daily beauty and art. It seems that living with art is a story in itself, that art and harmony are one with spirituality, that it overlapped with the land, which contained so many gifts that were recognized in ways of beauty.
The volunteer who has worked for so many years on this project gives me tobacco and sage an elder passed to her for a ceremonial burial. She offers us necklaces she made from gourds. We choose our own, mine being the white gourd with a spider. We are also given a packet of seeds from the gourds, the kind that still grow here from the long-ago past. I will plant them. These seeds will grow along my fence, a reminder of this event, this place, and I already think of their blossoms and the first roundness of the fruit as it grows from the flower.
Then it is time for us to be alone with the bodies. LaDonna, my friend and sometimes consultant on our tribal matters, says the ceremonies have already been said for the people at the time of their first burial. I am thinking we need more after what they have been through, with displays, handling, removal, and so much change. It isn’t up to me. But we will all be back for future burials, so for now we decide on silence.
The silence is important. Much grows and lives in silences. I have been told that some of our old meetings began in silence and that many decisions were made in that manner, with the great times of quiet allowing for much consideration. Silence, too, is a form of communication, an unspoken language of respect and care. We each pay our respects to the people here. I will find a way to speak my own prayers for them with the white sage and tobacco given me by the woman who held it for so long.
History has many stories, and I am grateful that the people whose remains are placed here had their days of joy and shared labor, even their sorrows, all beneath the great sky of sun or clouds, in the ancient forest with soft rains and the moving constellations and changing moon, their wealth of night sky. Now, centuries later, the quiet harmony is still here. Or, like the people, it is returned. O