Native-American activist pleads for Nickajack Shores to be left alone
By TOM KUNESH
June 12, 2005
Burns Island in the Tennessee River, less than a mile below the Nickajack Dam 25 miles west of Chattanooga, is a privately owned 220-acre Native American site with artifacts that date to 2,400 years, ceded to the United States by the Cherokee Nation in 1819. It is so culturally significant that it is eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, a designation that would give it protection under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.
The Little Cedar Mountain property is a beautiful 756-acre tract of farm fields and lakeshore land just above the Nickajack Dam that the Tennessee Valley Authority took from Euro-American farmers by eminent domain in the 1960s to build a dam at the old Indian town of Shellmound/Nickajack. Little Cedar Mountain and the adjacent land, including the old town sites now underwater, long have been a sacred site to Native Americans. It was the last still-public land where Dragging Canoe and his Chickamauga band were centered in their resistance to the expanding white encroachment.
John "Thunder" Thornton, CEO of Thunder Enterprises in Chattanooga, wants to swap 1,100 acres of land he recently purchased for 578 acres of TVA lakeshore property next to Little Cedar Mountain. Thornton bought Burns Island, appraised at $593,000, to sweeten the deal for TVA. Thornton calls his proposed development Nickajack Shores.
If this were just a land swap, it would be business as usual, trading acres here for acres there. But what Thornton has done, and what he wants TVA to buy into, is nothing less than cultural terrorism.
"Artifacts" is the term archaeologists use to dispassionately describe the household and human remains of an old site that gain meaning and significance only when dug up, collected, studied and explained. To descendants of the people who lived there, however, these are sacred sites, and the dead and their resting places are to remain intact and protected from all exposure. At least this is the traditional belief in Native-American culture today.
Burns Island contains the cultural heritage and bodies of Native Americans. Burns Island, while being private property in the Euro-American developer's world, is a sacred site to Native Americans. The right thing for a good person to do is to give or sell the land back to the Muskogee (Creek) Nation and descendants of the people who lived there. Or if giving or selling land back to the Indians is not preferred, giving the archaeological easement to the tribe or to a trust like the InterTribal Sacred Land Trust or even to TVA. Or at least submit the recent archaeological report paid for by Thunder Enterprises for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places so it can receive federal protection from any further damage.
The immoral and unethical thing to do is to use sacred land and the cultural patrimony of Native Americans as a bargaining chip between a Euro-American public utility and a Euro-American land developer. Thornton and Thunder Enterprises know that Burns Island should be preserved as it is.
Thornton himself has said the island is eminently developable but needs preservation and protection. Thornton has both the knowledge and the power to protect Burns Island, but apparently is reluctant to do the right thing, in essence holding the island hostage in negotiations for the other piece of land he really wants -- Little Cedar Mountain.
There is an implicit threat contained in these negotiations: Give me Little Cedar Mountain, or Burns Island gets developed. TVA doesn't see it because it's looking at the land as acreage and wetlands and artifacts -- better toys to play with -- and because it's a secular business. But at the May 24 TVA-sponsored hearing in South Pittsburg, Tenn., Thornton (claimed to already have someone else's earlier plans) for a 220-unit housing development on Burns Island and that the solution was for TVA to swap some land for it.
Developing a sacred site -- destroying the cultural and religious integrity of the land -- creates fear of loss among religious people, especially in America among Native Americans. The creation of fear is the primary component of terrorism. To threaten development of a Native American sacred site -- holding it hostage as a bargaining chip -- is cultural terrorism.
Native Americans should not negotiate with any person who buys Native-American sacred sites to trade them for other property. TVA, a federal agency, should abide by federal policy and should not negotiate with any person who buys Native-American sacred sites to trade them for other property.
Thornton is doing what grave-robbers of Native American sites have been doing for years, just on a much larger scale: finding and buying an entire 220-acre Native-American site to sell to an old collector of Native-American sites, TVA.
Save Little Cedar Mountain. Say no to cultural terrorism. Say no to environmental racism. Demand that TVA stop negotiating for a Native-American sacred site. Demand that Burns Island and Little Cedar Mountain be protected -- by Muskogean tribes and towns, by Native Americans, by Euro-Americans everywhere.
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