The Ohio River Water Walk is the third Nibi walk

This Memorial Day, Honor the Water, Remember the Fallen, and Protect the Mounds

Mary Annette Pember

On this Memorial Day in Kentucky, commemorations will include ceremony not only for the war dead of the U.S., but for the many warrior and non-warrior Native ancestors, perhaps killed in defense of their homelands.

Sharon Day, Ojibwe, leader of the walk noted that the Ohio River valley is home to many sacred sites and burial mounds. “It is sad to see such a sacred area treated so badly by pollution and disregard for the ancestors who lie here,” she said.

Sharon Day, Ojibwe, begins the first leg of the day of Nibi Walk along the Ohio River in Cincinnati. (Mary Annette Pember)

Looting of Native graves by amateur and professional collectors in search of artifacts was not an uncommon practice in this region. According to historians with the Ancient Trail of Ohio, hundreds of mounds in Ohio alone have also been destroyed by farming and development.

For generations, Wickliffe Mounds exemplified disrespect for Native sacred places and burial sites.

The modern story of Wickliffe Mounds began in 1932 when Fain King, the owner of the site opened a number of burial mounds on his property, unearthing the bones of hundreds of men, women and children from the Mississippian culture. According to the Kentucky Parks Service, they were likely buried around 1200 A.D. in the large settlement located on a bluff overlooking the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. King created a roadside tourist attraction from his find. He dubbed it “The Ancient Buried City,” where he offered paying customers a close up view of the remains. After removing the tops of the mounds, he built walkways over the graves where ancestors lay interred with pottery and other items. One of the opened mounds offered for public view contained the remains of many infants. The operation continued until 1983 when it was given to the Murray State University of Kentucky. Murray State operated the site until 2004 when Kentucky State Parks took over, making Wickliffe Mounds the 11th Kentucky state historical site.

Wesler, archaeologist and current director of the Remote Sensing Center at Murray State, was charged by the university with taking over the site in 1983.  Although he had little knowledge at the time of the cultural concerns of Native peoples regarding treatment of remains, he knew immediately that the bones needed to be taken off display. “I got a crash course in Native American cultural awareness,” he recalled.

“I soon learned that when you define the past as family, you take it personally,” he remarked about those early conversations with tribal peoples whose ancestors are interred in the mounds.

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