Corps, tribes sign pact for remains found at Birds Point

Wednesday, November 21, 2012
FILE - Water flows over the breached section of Birds Point levee in Mississippi County, Mo., on Tuesday, May 3, 2011. (Kristin Eberts)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The remains of American Indian tribe members discovered in the Birds Point-New Madrid floodway in Missouri will be respectfully preserved under an agreement signed Tuesday.

Leaders of the Quapaw Tribe and the Delaware Nation joined Col. Vernie Reichling, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers' Memphis district, in signing the Programmatic Agreement in Memphis. Four other tribes -- the Absentee Shawnee Tribe, the Thlopthlocco (Creek) Tribal Town, the Osage Nation and the Eastern Shawnee Tribe -- also are expected to sign.

The agreement will solidify communication between the corps and the tribes related to the handling of human skeletal remains found in the floodway during the next 10 years. It establishes protocols for handling remains respectfully. The corps also agreed to let the tribes know that remains or cultural sites could be found at a planned project.

"It recognizes these tribes as full partners, and I want to put emphasis on full, because we could not do this without them," Reichling said. "Today is a significant step in protecting the culture of Native Americans."

The agreement comes after the remains of 25 prehistoric Mississippians were exposed after the Birds Point-New Madrid levee was blown out during last year's flood of the Mississippi River.

The remains were buried in the natural levee in the 19th century and the graves were incorporated into the levee system built by the corps in the 20th century, Reichling said.

After waters receded in the floodway, historical preservation officers, tribe members and the corps collected and preserved the remains, Reichling said.

In the past, the corps had failed to properly consult with tribes when American Indian remains were discovered during work projects near the Mississippi River, said John L. Berrey, chairman of Quapaw Tribe. The group had lived predominantly on the west side of the Mississippi from Cape Girardeau to Greenville, Miss.

Two similar agreements with the corps' Memphis district have been signed in Arkansas. They are partly designed to avoid future federal lawsuits related to the handling of remains.

"What creates the difficulties of today is still the sort of raw nerves of the earlier history of no consultation," Berrey said. "A lot of times you have to allow the tribes to vent their frustrations of the past in order to go forward."

Berrey and Tamara Francis Fourkiller, cultural preservation director for the Delaware Nation, praised the corps for its cooperation.

The corps will be responsible for damage assessments and site restoration in the event of future activations or intensive levee repairs that could affect American Indian graves in the floodway.

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