Friday, March 27, 2009
Eastern Band of Cherokee Battle Runway Expansion
Eastern Band of Cherokee Battle Runway Expansion
By Shelley Bluejay Pierce
March 27, 2009
FRANKIN, North Carolina- An ongoing conflict over the proposed expansion of a local airport runway has the Eastern Band of Cherokee at odds with the Macon County Airport Authority over the Iotla Valley historic site. Located in the Northern part of Macon County, the area in question is said to hold hundreds of Native American burials and evidence of human activities thought to be from around 2 A.D.
The land surrounding the airport once held the Cherokee Middle Town of Iotla, and is now known to be a significant historical site holding immense cultural and historical importance. Preliminary archaeological reports show that evidence of human activity remains intact beneath the surface including structural layouts and evidential remains.
The Eastern Band previously submitted guidelines for treatment of human remains and funerary objects uncovered at the site. Principal Chief, Michell Hicks, announced recently that the tribe had rejected a proposed Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) meant to coordinate the proposed 600 ft. runway expansion. The Cherokee’s rejection was based on the MOA stating that recovery of artifacts and burials would be conducted on only 25 percent of area.
Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, Russ Townsend, has stated earlier that the tribe recommends 100 percent artifact removal or abandoning the runway expansion entirely. When human remains are found during excavations, the Eastern Band prefers they be covered back in the ground and left alone.
Preliminary excavations at Iotla Valley have revealed structures and artifacts that would reveal much into the original communities’ activities. Opponents to the expansion have protested stating that as the airport runway project moves to completion, hundreds of graves would be permanently paved over and become a jet runway. Many have publicly decried this as an insult to human remains and burial grounds.
In an interview with Native American Times, Chief Hicks explained the Tribes’ firm stance on the issues saying, “I’ve been in office almost 6 years now and this is one of the first things I had to deal with. The requirements that we have set out there are obviously not satisfactory to the County and that’s their problem. We feel we are definitely right on this issue because there are several hundred graves on this site and it was a major village.”
Since 2000, the debates have continued with entrenched factions taking firm stances on how the Iotla Valley project should move forward, if allowed at all. Reasons for the expansion have appeared to change from the initial need for increasing safety at the airport, to being an aid for industrial business expansion and finally as a commercial economic boost to local businesses.
Chief Hicks told Native Times that he has no reason to doubt that economic impacts are included in the expansion plans due to the airport revenues impacting the Macon County economy. Hicks insisted however that the Tribe would stand firm on protecting their cultural heritage and the gravesites while also being mindful of the local economic needs in the region.
The State’s standard for recovering only 25 percent of the artifacts and burials has left many at odds with how to proceed at all. Chief Hicks told Native Times that, “I will never support moving a grave. When an individual is at their final resting spot, that is the way it was meant to be. The 25 percent rule is a level that is ‘acceptable’ by the State’s archaeologist.”
Chief Hicks explained that regardless of what the price tag may be for those funding the expansion project, complete studies on environmental impacts as well as archaeological reclamation efforts must be completed. The treatment of the Iotla site must consider the enormous cultural significance and treatment of burial grounds.
“We are going to do what we need to do to ensure that the right things are done for the right reasons. There are some steps in the runway project proposal required by the Federal guidelines that the County hasn’t even achieved yet,” replied Hicks.
Local residents whose peaceful community would be directly impacted by airport expansion commented in earlier press that they believe the project is geared at benefiting a few large corporations in the region as well as a minority of wealthy individuals who desire a larger airport close by. The airport would reap profits from increased fuel sales with more airliners landing at the airport if the expansion project moves forward.
Costs for the 25 percent archaeological recovery is estimated at $535,000 that would be paid for by funding from the State Department of Transportation’s Aviation Division. Dr. Michael Trinkley who performed the preliminary archaeological survey of the site in 2000 stated in previous reports and 100 percent recovery of artifacts may cost as much as $2 million.
Dr. Trinkley had also stated previously that potential industrial development was not a sufficient enough reason to destroy a historical and educational site of this magnitude adding that the handling of such a place is also an issue of human dignity.
The runway extension would require scrapping off topsoils and adding large amounts of compacted fill that would raise and level the runway. Archaeologists are concerned that this process would bring irreversible damage to human remains and artifacts.
As discussions continue between all sides in this issue, Chief Hicks repeated his bottom line message, telling Native American Times, “The Eastern Cherokee will stand firm on protecting their cultural heritage and the gravesites.”