Hamilton County responds to Native American artifact controversy

A view inside Strawtown Koteewi Park, operated by Hamilton County. It's at 12308 Strawtown Ave, north of Noblesville. (WISH Photo)

NOBLESVILLE, Ind. (WISH) — Hamilton County Parks and Recreation officials are responding to news that they unearthed human remains from Native American burial sites and withheld artifacts from the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma for years during archaeological projects.

Federal documents state Hamilton County Parks are guilty of failing to comply with the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) for archaeology work done from 2001 to 2011 on the 850 acres encompassed in the Strawtown Koteewi Park north of Noblesville. Teams of archaeologists and students from various universities discovered tens of thousands of artifacts over the 10 years, including fragments of human bone and funeral items in the earth. Hamilton County Park’s fine totals $6,533.

However, the federal government also issued a penalty fine reduction of 25 percent because Hamilton County Parks and Recreation “did not willfully fail to comply. … Upon learning of the allegation against for failure to comply with the requirements of NAGPRA, Hamilton County Parks acknowledged its compliance responsibilities, and began the necessary steps to come into compliance with the law.”

Allen Patterson, director of Hamilton County Parks and Recreation, said that’s the side of the story he wishes more Hamilton County residents knew.

“We never exhumed any burials. Since we’ve owned the property, no burials have been exhumed or put in storage or anything like that,” Patterson said. “If anything was found, we would go through the natural steps.”

Patterson explained that meant going through the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office and the representative tribe for the area where the artifacts were found.

“Between 2001 and 2011, we were being told go ahead and work with the Miami of Indiana because that was the group that the state was working with,” Patterson said. “And then, in 2012, we determined that we had been given bad advice.”

He said, in 2010, the NAGPRA law changed, and the tribe who needed the historical artifact notification was the federally recognized Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, as opposed to the state-recognized tribe in Indiana. Patterson said his team went to the Oklahoma-based, 4,400-person nation with open hands.

“We understand why you might be upset. We didn’t know that we needed to be talking with you. Now we know, now we’re here,” he said. “You can’t tell the story without involving the people that are involved.”

Patterson said his team has taken remedial action on both NAGPRA violations. First, in the fall of 2012, when they began notifying and working with the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma on any human remains or burial objects discovered and again, in May of 2013, when his team submitted an inventory of artifacts discovered.

The Miami Tribe of Indiana, the Indiana Native American Indian Affairs Commission and the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma were unavailable for comment Monday. The Miami Tribe of Oklahoma states on its website:

“The Miami Tribe of Oklahoma has shown by action our absolute determination to perpetuate our cultural identity. … We actively reclaim what has been taken from us, our language, traditions, ancestral remains from museum shelves, and missing objects of our culture.”

Patterson said to prevent errors like the ones four years ago from occurring again, his department has hired a new full-time staff member responsible for overseeing artifact collection, participated in NAGPRA staff training and implemented a new Collections Management Policy.

“I think we have dealt with everything with the utmost respect,” Patterson said.