Landfill Plan Sparks Indian Protest in Tennessee, Native Americans Oppose Development They View as a Threat to Ancestral Graves CULTURE CLASH

Article excerpt

THE drive along Old Hickory Boulevard in the Bells Bend area just outside of Nashville winds through lush rolling meadows and forested hills capped by a deep blue sky. For weeks at the bottom of one hill, a large sign beneath a red flag announced: "Indian Prayer Vigil." Today in its place are angrier words: "I am Indian. I am human. I am an American citizen. But I don't have rights." The signs refer to a local controversy over use of an Indian burial ground as a landfill, at issue is a more difficult problem to resolve: how to reconcile the varying and often misunderstood needs of particular cultures.

When Metropolitan Nashville proposed Bells Bend for a new sanitary landfill, native Americans quickly objected. They pointed out that such a use would desecrate thousands of ancient native American graves in that area.

The arrest of 30 protesters blocking entry to core-drilling machinery last month brought a temporary resolution to a standoff between the native Americans and the landfill developers. "Temporary," stress the native Americans, is the key word.

The action followed a suit filed by Metro Nashville and Spicewood Services, the developer with an option to buy the 808 acres in question from Eastman-Kodak for a reported $10,500 per acre. They had asked for an injunction to keep the native Americans off the land and from blocking ingress onto the land. Repeatedly, the language in the suit referred to the city's intention to treat the Indians' concerns "sensitively."

Explains Rick Runyeon, press secretary to the mayor: "What needs to be clear is that the 808 acres the native Americans are concerned about is to be used only for borrow material (cover dirt). Yes, there are known burial sites on the entire 808 acres, so we selected a 124-acre piece (within the larger site with no known burial sites). On this piece there are three archaeological sites, remains of Indian habitats, and one of the three may have potential for human burial. We want to survey the entire area, and then do about 20 drill-core samples. If we find graves we'll fence them off."

Jeff Carnahan, of Cherokee descent, responds: "How do you suppose America would react if we were to suggest taking fill dirt from the Arlington National Cemetery?"

Susan Garner and Dan Norwood, attorneys for the Alliance for Native American Indian Rights, a Nashville-based nonprofit lobbying group formed in October 1989 to fight grave desecration and to seek reburial of native American remains through legislation and litigation, in turn filed a suit seeking an injunction to prevent Metro from digging landfill cover dirt on the site.

"The dispute with the city is due to a lack of understanding about what desecration is," Mr. Norwood says. "They say they'll be sensitive. What they don't seem to understand is that the ground around graves is sensitive. Any tampering is desecration."

After hearing arguments for both sides in Chancery Court, Chancellor Robert S. Brandt ruled on Oct. 22 in favor of Metro and Spicewood Services, saying, "The site has not been identified as a place any person or group uses for religious practice ... Rather, the sacredness of the site is claimed solely because human remains are or may be present."

Archaeological studies have documented numerous grave sites on the larger 808-acre site and estimate that there may be approximately 6,000 altogether. But, with the exception of the statement of a local farmer, there is no documentation concerning human remains on the enclosed 124-acre site of immediate concern.

Nonetheless, native Americans not only believe other sites to be present, they consider the entire site sacred burial ground. They also ask, why do the developers plan to buy 808 acres if they only intend to use 124 acres? What is to keep them from using the area as a landfill after they have taken the available cover dirt? …