Nashville floods expose robbing of ancient graves

By Albert Bender
Nashville, Tennessee (NFIC) September 2010        

Just coming to public attention  is the long ongoing robbery of ancient Native American graves on the banks of the Cumberland River that courses through the middle of Nashville.

Floods during May have focused new attention on the looting because the rushing waters exposed many  previously unknown remains. The grave robbing is being  perpetrated at its worst in the Bells Bend section of the city according to  local Native Americans, area residents  and archaeologists. All  have expressed outrage at the continued looting of ancient burial sites.

“How disrespectful it is to continue looting the graves of Native people.  Those who do this continue to rape the land and take from the dead”  said Melba Checote-Eads, a member of the Oklahoma Muscogee Creek Nation, now living in Middle, Tennessee.                                                                                         

Although  the Nashville media in late August first  began running stories on the grave looting , some Nashville  residents  maintain that the unlawful practice has been taking place in the same locale  for decades. There are reportedly  fifteen and  twenty foot deep craters along the riverbanks going back as far as the 19th Century.    

“We have known for years this looting has been going on, in  fact some of the area looks the craters of the moon, it seems  like this has been going on forever”  said Mark Tolley, Chairperson of the Tennessee Ancient Sites Conservancy, a Nashville based organization dedicated to the preservation of ancient Native  American sites. He continued “But, the real digging goes on back in the trees away from the riverbank and aerial reconnaissance is needed to see all of it.  We need to get video cameras on the sites.”                                                                                                   

Reportedly, a great deal of the looting  takes place in the middle of the night. The looters  are in violation of Tennessee law which makes it a felony to desecrate any grave, recent or ancient.                   

The May floods by washing away parts of the riverbanks exposed skeletal remains and provided increased opportunities for grave robbers to easily locate previously unknown gravesites. It is believed there are several groups looting ancient gravesites on a full time basis on the Cumberland River. For many  longtime residents, it is believed  that generations of the same families have been robbing ancient graves stretching back to  the mid-19th Century.       

Nashville and its environs have a rich ancient American Indian heritage. A thousand years ago Middle Tennessee,  according  to  historians, had the largest Native American population in the Southeast. It is estimated that the Nashville region was home to over one million Native people at one time. The burials that are being desecrated go back even further; some as far back as 14,000 years.

The looters are searching for artifacts  such as pottery, spear points, arrowheads, knives  and stone axes. These artifacts are purchased by private collectors, antique dealers and online auction houses. Many  such artifacts have been known to end up for sale in the international market and grave robbers have reportedly even sold skeletal remains.