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

The road to reburial was not easy in those early days for a traditionally trained archaeologist like Wesler. “The archaeological establishment was strictly anti-reburial in those days,” he recalls. One of his colleagues threatened to sue him if he went through with reburial efforts. He was threatened with legal action from a tribe upset about not being involved in consultations. Many community members also expressed anger over the reburial efforts and the decision to remove remains from public display. “The bones were on display for over 60 years. People grew up seeing them and wanted their children to see them. It was sort of a tradition here,” he said.

Chickasaw Nation Lieutenant Governor Jefferson Keel, with Kylo Prince, who is Lakota/Ojibwe from Long Plain First Nation in Manitoba, and Thomas Pearce, of the American Indian Movement of Indiana and Kentucky at an honoring ceremony to rebury ancestral remains at Wickliffe Mounds.

As he worked to make contacts and build relationships with the Native community, Wesler took the bones off display and replaced them with plastic replicas. The plastic bones served as placeholders, he said, as he struggled to strike a compromise among stakeholders.

The plastic replicas and walkways over the gravesites remained until 2011 when the Chickasaw Nation assisted in reburying the remains. The Oklahoma Intertribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes determined that since the Chickasaw were the closest living descendants of the Wickliffe ancestors they should lead reburial efforts.

RELATED: Honoring Ceremony Held for Reburied Ancestral Remains at Wickliffe Mounds in Kentucky

During the 2012 ceremony celebrating the reburial of over 400 ancestors from the mounds, Jefferson Keel, Lt. Governor of the Chickasaw Nation noted in his speech that in the past, Wickliffe was a place of desecration. Certainly no Native person would have wanted to visit such a place. Carla Hildebrand, manager of the site that is now owned and operated by the Kentucky State Parks Service, recalled Keel’s words.

“He spoke positively about the growing cooperative relationship between tribes and mainstream officials that allowed the reburial to happen. He said, ‘Now we can move forward,’” she recalled.

The story of Wickliffe Mounds is profound according to Hildebrand. She reports that numbers of Native groups such as the Nibi Walkers now stop in to pay their respects. “I’m happy that the mounds are getting the respect and attention due them,” she said.

“I’m grateful I got to keep those promises made to Native people along the way,” Wesler said.

The history of Wickliffe Mounds reflects a slowly maturing societal opinion regarding Native burial sites, noted Wesler.

Hildebrand noted that in recent years many people expressed discomfort about having the plastic bone replicas on display. “People’s sensibilities are maturing, we are seeing a change in attitudes. People from differing backgrounds would tell us they thought even the plastic replicas were disrespectful,” she said.

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