Under the bill, which Gov. Bob Riley signed into law April 30, American Indian burial and funerary objects are now protected to the same extent as those of all other ethnic groups. The law closes a loophole in previous state law that exempted property owners who knowingly disturbed Native American burials or funerary objects located on their land.
A violation of the new law could result in a Class C felony conviction, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $15,000 fine.
The bill entered the spotlight as a result of controversy that reached international levels after Oxford began demolishing a stone mound last year.
Robert Thrower, cultural director for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Atmore, said the new law would have allowed him and representatives from other American Indian tribes to legally challenge the mound’s destruction.
“The mound situation was horrible,” Thrower said. “We looked for quite some time for some legal hook with the Oxford mound. The really frustrating thing there was there was nothing we could leverage legally.”
Last summer Oxford, through its Commercial Development Authority, began tearing down the large hill which some experts, including those with the Alabama Historical Commission, say is a mound built by American Indians centuries ago. The dirt underneath was to be used as fill dirt for a planned Sam's Club nearby.
The city later stopped demolishing the hill, which is situated behind the Oxford Exchange shopping center. Though suspected to be a burial site, to date, no human remains have been found at the mound.
To Thrower, the lack of human remains does not matter.
“What most people don’t understand is it doesn’t matter if there are burials underneath or not,” Thrower said. “It serves a function … it’s sacred unto itself.”
Though the bill might have helped Thrower and others preserve more of the mound, it cannot do much for the situa-tion now.
“The law isn’t retroactive,” said Stacye Hathorn, state archaeologist with the Historical Commission. “But it was the right thing to do anyway. In the future, what happened in Oxford, that couldn’t happen again.”
Hathorn noted there are other stone mounds in the Oxford area that will benefit from the added protection.
“There are mounds on several of the adjacent mountaintops,” she said. “The one that was demolished was just the largest mound of a complex in the Choccolocco Creek area.”
Further fueling the controversy was a city-hired archaeologist from the University of Alabama, Robert Clouse, who wrote a report disputing an earlier one he signed saying the mound was man-made. His second report states the mound was created by natural forces — a claim contradicted by archaeologists and geologists who studied it.
“If anything good came out of that Oxford mess it was that bill,” said Harry Holstein, professor of archaeology and anthropology at Jacksonville State University and a longtime examiner of Indian sites in and around Oxford. “It’s a big step forward.”
While remains have not been discovered at the mound, ancient human remains were uncovered earlier this year nearby at the Davis Farm site, where the city is constructing a multi-million dollar sports complex. The law could be applied to the discovery of other remains, which Holstein said is a definite possibility.
Holstein has claimed the Davis Farm site was once the location of an ancient Indian village.
“My prediction is they will definitely encounter more human remains,” Holstein said.
Hathorn said state law would apply to future remains found at the site, but added it is not needed in that case since the area is under stringent federal burial protection laws.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shut the city’s sports complex project down in February because it was not notified about the remains, which were discovered around Jan. 8. The wetlands permit the city obtained to develop the Davis Farm site stipulates the corps must be notified if any remains and or artifacts are discovered.
The corps has been undertaking a lengthy review process ever since and has yet to reauthorize construction at the site.
Contact staff writer Patrick McCreless at 256-235-3561.