Desecration of Indigenous Burials and Other Sacred Sites

When Meriwether Lewis visited and then wrote about Grave Creek Mound, he was part of a long history of settlers visiting, popularizing, excavating, desecrating, and looting the graves of North America’s Indigenous communities.

Grave Creek Mound was built by people who lived during the Adena cultural tradition. Their descendants include Shawnee, Miami, Anishinaabeg, Kickapoo, Meskwaki, and Asakiwaki people.

When settlers of European descent dug into Grave Creek Mound and shipped items from graves to a museum in Philadelphia, they were stealing from the ancestors of the same people whom they had recently forced from their homelands.

In following years, settlers levelled smaller mounds nearby, and Americans further excavated the largest mound in 1838 and sent some of its contents to a museum. Some human remains and other items are still scattered at different museums.

People desecrating graves is part of a long history of American settlers looting Indigenous burial grounds and other sacred sites. Even the writings of Thomas Jefferson promoted tomb raiding—he described looting burial mounds in his Notes on the State of Virginia (originally published in 1785). Looting unfortunately remains common at archeological sites all over the world.

Indigenous Americans have fought for laws to protect their ancestors’ remains and address the intergenerational pain caused by looting of cultural sites.

In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), enacted “to establish the rights of Indian tribes and their lineal descendants to obtain repatriation of certain human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony from federal agencies and museums.” But thirty years after NAGPRA’s enactment, some of its aims have not been achieved.

What can you do to protect cultural heritage of Indigenous communities? First, don’t dig in the ground in protected areas. If you see something that looks like an artifact, leave it be, and inform a park ranger or other staff at the site. And above all, spread the word about the importance of protecting such sites and respecting Indigenous connections to these places, and encourage others to do the same.

Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail

Last updated: January 11, 2024