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Travellers Rest
Historic House Museum
Will The Ancestors Ever Know Rest?
by Michael Sims

Hau Mikolapi:

This site outside Nashville Tennessee continues to be of much concern to the Native American community. The following brief article seeks to background Native Americans and friends of the Native American community on the issue and what can be done to address it.

The existing two-and-a-half story brick structure was built in the late 1700's as a residence for Judge John Overton, a prominent lawyer and associate of Andrew Jackson. His home was built over a burial mound which was the central feature of a Mississippian village (Tennessee Archaeological Site Designation 40DV11). In fact, Judge Overton nicknamed the site Golgotha (Hill of Skulls) because of the large number of skulls found during the construction of the cellar of his home. At present, the house serves as a tourist attraction with visitor center.

This site has been the target of desecration for quite some time. The full extent of desecration will probably never be known. However, we do know that farming, railroad construction, building, and landscaping have disturbed dozens of graves. From August to November 1995,an archaeological investigation and burial removal project was conducted at this site. This was all part of a process to construct a new interpretive center at Travellers Rest. Under Tennessee law, if prehistoric Indian graves are involved, then notification, in writing, must be made to the Native American members of the Governor's Archeological Advisory Council (AAC) as well as to the Chairman of the Tennessee Commission on Indian Affairs (TCIA). Since Travellers Rest is designated a National Historic Site, the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) also became applicable. Travellers Rest expected to find eight graves. However, when the excavation was completed, there were thirteen graves opened with some fourteen individuals removed along with their associated funerary objects. At present, the remains and artifacts are still at the lab of the State of Tennessee, Department of Conversation, Division of Archaeology.

To recount what has transpired, first the Tennessee Commission on Indian Affairs was notified on October 6, 1995 of the intent of The National Society of the Colonial Dames in Tennessee and Travellers Rest Historic House Museum, Incorporated, "Travellers Rest" "to terminate a native cemetery" located on their property, They then filed a petition for the same in Chancery Court for Davidson County, Tennessee which was entered on October 9th, 1995. They cited the need for expediency due to the "likelihood of vandalism and destruction of graves" in their petition so that the order could be entered on the same day. Note, this petition was entered on October 9th, 1995, and the order was issued on October 9th, 1995. According to a notice from the State Archaeologist Nick Fielder titled "Burial Relocation Process for Prehistoric Burials at Travellers Rest Historic Site" dated September 1, 1995 " (8): Publication of notice to unknown descendants. Must run for four weeks". From the time the Commission was notified until the order was granted was only three days. What happened to the four weeks? This is significant also in that this was the same procedure that was tried at the Moss-Wright site in Goodlettsville, Tennessee. If alert members of both the native and local communities had not found out about that project I'm sure the same thing would have happened to this significant burial mound. By November, the excavation was completed and the artifacts and remains were turned over to the State Archaeologist for study and NAGPRA inventory. Members of a local native organization protested on site and monitored the excavation process. Nancy Cavener, Executive Director of Travellers Rest, expressed dissatisfaction "that some people were upset by the Indians protesting." I wonder why these "people" would not expect Native Americans to be upset over their ancestors' rest being once again disturbed. In January it was reported at the quarterly Tennessee Commissions of Indian Affairs meeting that the remains were ready for reburial. When asked about the artifacts, the reply was, 'the tribes had not responded to notification'. From then until July this became the standard answer from the state archaeologist, Mr. Fielder. In July, under the Tennessee Publics Records Act, my attorney and I met at the Tenn. Dept. of Archaeology to view all documents from this project. We were told that the tribal notification letters, as required by NAGPRA, were there, but none were produced. NAGPRA requires that prior to commencing work on any national historic site that notification be made to the NAGPRA Departmental Consulting Archaeologist and a Cultural Preservation Section 106 process started by the State Historical Commission. No evidence was found that any of these processes were done. Both the State Historical Commission and the State Archaeological Departments were checked. My attorney and I carefully researched the records while there and found no such letters of studies. When questioned by the attorney as to why, Mr. Fielder responded that they were there. However, when I later received what Mr. Fielder assured me was a complete copy of all documents, they were not there either. While at this July meeting my attorney also asked why the artifacts were not being made available for repatriation as were the human remains, Mr. Fielder responded, 'that rarely, if ever in Tennessee, are artifacts repatriated'. I understand that this seems to be common occurrence elsewhere, but I do not think this an acceptable policy anywhere.

In August a viewing and honoring of the ancestors was arranged. Several peoples from local native organizations were present. Mr. Fielder was most gracious and cooperative in this, but still did not produce notification letters responding 'they would be forthcoming'. Why the constant references to these letters you might ask? The lack of response of tribes is the reason Mr. Fielder has repeatedly stated for not releasing the artifacts. However, note that even without tribal response they will release the remains. However, one would like to know how the tribes could respond if they were not notified, which no one is saying did not occur, just that no proof is at hand that they had been. A request was made for the archaeological field notes. As of this date no notes have been produced and one can only wonder why. Finally, when someone commented on the fact that the remains were stored in cardboard boxes the response was the boxes were all that was required to comply with the law. Also, that when the remains are reburied these boxes would be all that would be provided for these ancestors. These individuals were buried in stone boxes and I do not see that a cardboard box is a proper substitute for a stone box.

Finally, I wrote an inquiry letter to the National Park Service Department of Ethnography and Archaeology to clarify the questions I had about this issue. This was in September of 1996 and now it is January of 1997 and I have still had no response from the NAGPRA committee. At present, we have a new project underway to construct a stadium for a professional football team, the Oiler's. This site is suspected to contain a large burial site, rumored to be one to two in miles in extent. This site is an extension of the "Jefferson Street Bridge Site" that received much press in 1990. The businesses displaced here could end up in Bell's Bend or Cockrill Bend, both are significant Native burial sites. Can we expect to see the same thing to occur at this project as it did at Travellers Rest ? My answer is, "I hope not".

In closing, I would like to ask the reader to consider all that has been written here. As Mr. Fielder has replied, 'in his thirteen years in his office as State Director of Archaeology no one has requested such a public disclosure as this.' Perhaps it is time that we all demand such an accounting of our public officials. Considering that the treaties made with native peoples contained no retroactive clause for burial ground protection, it is no wonder this violation of the dignity of the Original Inhabitants is so prevalent throughout this land our ancestors knew as Turtle Island.

Update - 1.15.97

As you know, the situation with Traveller's Rest is ever changing. This is a quick article to let you know some recent developements.

In the article titled above it was noted that a request had been made by one of our brothers, Shawn, for the archaeological field notes. This was made in August while we were viewing the remains and artifacts. At that time Mr. Fielder told us that these notes were in the hands of the "contractor" and he would get them to us soon. Numerous times Shawn and I tried to obtain these notes directly from Mr. Fielder, but to no avail. On December 23rd, 1996 I faxed a written request for these notes under provision of the Tennessee Public Records Act, but as of January 15th ,1997, I nor Shawn have had any response or notes from Mr. Fielder. Recently I located a document from the Division of Archaeology entitled: Procedures for Court-Ordered Removal of Human Skeletal Remains Under the General Supervision of the Division of Archaeology dated November 7th, 1995. Section 5 of this document is "Delivery to the Division of Archaeology : subpart b relates that:

"All burial associations, field notes, records, maps, and photographs must be delivered to the Division along with the skeletal remains. If necessary, these materials may be delivered to the Division after the completion of the project report".

Therefore, according to this report from Mr. Fielder's office, then the Division of Archaeology should have the notes. If they don't then where are they and why can't we see them? Under Tennessee law Mr. Fielder must produce these notes, but he has not and many people are wondering why. Thank you for your support one and all. Once again I ask you join with us and demand that the facts be disclosed.

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