FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. - A special marker has recently been placed on the gravesite of more than 50 partial Native American remains at the German POW Cemetery, thanks to a unique collaboration between Fort Campbell and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Historic Preservation Office (EBCI THPO).
Archaeologist Ron Grayson, Cultural Resources Program manager with Fort Campbell Directorate of Public Works, said traditionally archaeologists excavate archaeological sites, and sometimes, within those, are graves.
“Until recently, many of these findings of human remains were stored, curated or displayed with the objects that were found on the off chance someone would want to research them.”
In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed by Congress in recognition of the fact that all human remains, "must at all times be treated with dignity and respect." The repatriation and disposition of specific Native American human remains, burial objects, sacred objects, and cultural patrimony objects have since been governed by federal legislation.
“We had to try and identify the remains that we had in our collection or whoever the closest living descendants were,” Grayson stated. “This process can sometimes be easy if the remains are more modern and have similar clothes or artifacts as neighboring tribes.”
Previous curators of the Fort Campbell Pratt Museum discovered 57 individuals and 516 associated funerary objects (AFOs) between 1930 - 2001. These archaeological collections had been excavated on-and off-post. All the remains, as well as AFOs, were stored at the University of Kentucky until 2017, when they were transferred to the Cultural Resource Office at Fort Campbell. Four of these remains were repatriated at the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area with coordination through the United States Forest Service.
A categorization known as culturally affiliated, allows indigenous tribes to reclaim the remains of their ancestors. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District’s Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections (MCX CMAC) examined the remains and objects attempting to identify a particular descendant tribe.
Fort Campbell, in consultation with 12 Federally Recognized Native American Tribes, determined that there was not enough evidence to support cultural affiliation with any Indian Tribe. Since there were no culturally affiliated tribes, the remains were given to the tribes whose aboriginal land the collections came from, in this case, the Cherokee Tribes. Fort Campbell notified all the tribes that were identified as Cherokee of the unclaimed remains and the EBCI THPO formally claimed them on behalf of all three Federally recognized Cherokee Tribes.
“Initially, the tribe requested that we put the remains back in the archaeological site they came from.” Grayson explained. “Unfortunately, some of the remains were from the 30s … the records aren't great. The tribe then requested that the remains be buried close to their original gravesite [Fort Campbell] and to be protected.”
Fort Campbell Garrison coordinated reburial of the remains and permanent marking of the grave with the Office of Army Cemeteries (OAC) in Arlington, Va. A cemetery created by the Army in the 1940s that housed German Prisoners of War (POW) who died in WWII was selected for the reburial site. It is one of 22 post cemeteries administered by the OAC.
After the EBCI THPO approval of the location, the remains were reinterred in the German POW Cemetery July 20, 2021. In compliance with Army regulations, a temporary marker was used to mark the burial.
“Locating a secure and protected reburial spot as close as possible to the original burial is often the most difficult part of a NAGPRA project,” said Miranda Panther, EBCI NAGPRA officer. “The EBCI THPO was appreciative that we would be able to rebury the ancestors and their belongings back on the Fort Campbell property.”
The EBCI THPO conducted reburial ceremonies at the German Pow Cemetery according to their customs.
“Any time we can complete a NAGPRA reburial, it's an emotional day. Especially when you've been working on a project for years and it finally comes to fruition,” Panther said. “Our goal is to respectfully rebury as many ancestors and their belongings as possible, so that they can be put back to rest.”
The installation and OAC were able to accommodate the EBCI THPO’s request that the marker be different from the standard upright “Unknown” veteran’s headstone. The marker is smaller and an unobtrusive gray granite. The marker is engraved with the symbols in the Cherokee Syllabary, “anigiduwagi,” which translate to “People from Kituwah.” Kituwah, an ancient Native American settlement, is the original mother town of the Cherokee People. The marker is engraved with Cherokee symbols and the English translation, representing a significant inclusion of indigenous script in an Army cemetery.
“It is meaningful to have a headstone with Cherokee syllabary present in the cemetery.” Panther stated. “We are also thankful to the United States Forest Service and Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area for allowing us to rebury a part of the Fort Campbell collection on their property.”
Native Americans, including members of the Cherokee Nation, have proudly served in the U.S. military across military installations worldwide, leaving an indelible mark on the armed forces. This includes Fort Campbell, where the presence of Native American service members is particularly noteworthy. One member of the Cherokee Nation and Fort Campbell Garrison Commander Col. Andrew Jordan who commended the efforts involved in establishing this symbolic marker.
“The historic marker placed on the remains at the German POW cemetery is a significant effort to honor and remember our ancestors,” Jordan said. “Fort Campbell's commitment to being good stewards of the land and culture is commendable. Understanding the history of how this land was provided to the United States government to create Fort Campbell reminds us to appreciate and preserve what we have inherited.”
The symbolic marker and repatriation of Cherokee remains at the Fort Campbell German POW Cemetery serves as a powerful testament to the enduring legacy of Cherokee military members and their deep connection to the land they defended. The repatriation process, which started in 2017, not only honors the ancestral ties of these Cherokee individuals but also acknowledges the resilience and cultural heritage of Native American service members.
According to Grayson, this headstone likely represents the first, and only, marker with an indigenous script in an Army cemetery. “The inclusion of Cherokee words, in Cherokee script, on the headstone of Cherokee ancestors within an Army Post Cemetery is a positive step forward in the Federal Government’s respect for, and reconciliation with, Native People,” Grayson stated.
The Cultural Resources Management Program provides genealogical information to descendants and arranges cemetery visits. For more information, visit https://home.army.mil/campbell/index.php/cultural-resources.
For more information on the legacy of Native American's in the military, visit https://www.army.mil/article/269039.