THE drive along Old Hickory Boulevard in the Bells Bend area just outside of Nashville winds through lush rolling meadows and forested hills capped by a deep blue sky. For weeks at the bottom of one hill, a large sign beneath a red flag announced: ``Indian Prayer Vigil.'' Today in its place are angrier words: ``I am Indian. I am human. I am an American citizen. But I don't have rights.'' The signs refer to a local controversy over use of an Indian burial ground as a landfill, at issue is a more difficult problem to resolve: how to reconcile the varying and often misunderstood needs of particular cultures. When Metropolitan Nashville proposed Bells Bend for a new sanitary landfill, native Americans quickly objected. They pointed out that such a use would desecrate thousands of ancient native American graves in that area.
The arrest of 30 protesters blocking entry to core-drilling machinery last month brought a temporary resolution to a standoff between the native Americans and the landfill developers. ``Temporary,'' stress the native Americans, is the key word.
The action followed a suit filed by Metro Nashville and Spicewood Services, the developer with an option to buy the 808 acres in question from Eastman-Kodak for a reported $10,500 per acre. They had asked for an injunction to keep the native Americans off the land and from blocking ingress onto the land. Repeatedly, the language in the suit referred to the city's intention to treat the Indians' concerns ``sensitively.''
Explains Rick Runyeon, press secretary to the mayor: ``What needs to be clear is that the 808 acres the native Americans are concerned about is to be used only for borrow material [cover dirt]. Yes, there are known burial sites on the entire 808 acres, so we selected a 124-acre piece [within the larger site with no known burial sites]. On this piece there are three archaeological sites, remains of Indian habitats, and one of the three may have potential for human burial. We want to survey the entire area, and then do about 20 drill-core samples. If we find graves we'll fence them off.''
Jeff Carnahan, of Cherokee descent, responds: ``How do you suppose America would react if we were to suggest taking fill dirt from the Arlington National Cemetery?''
Susan Garner and Dan Norwood, attorneys for the Alliance for Native American Indian Rights, a Nashville-based nonprofit lobbying group formed in October 1989 to fight grave desecration and to seek reburial of native American remains through legislation and litigation, in turn filed a suit seeking an injunction to prevent Metro from digging landfill cover dirt on the site.
``The dispute with the city is due to a lack of understanding about what desecration is,'' Mr. Norwood says. ``They say they'll be sensitive. What they don't seem to understand is that the ground around graves is sensitive. Any tampering is desecration.''
After hearing arguments for both sides in Chancery Court, Chancellor Robert S. Brandt ruled on Oct. 22 in favor of Metro and Spicewood Services, saying, ``The site has not been identified as a place any person or group uses for religious practice ... Rather, the sacredness of the site is claimed solely because human remains are or may be present.''
Archaeological studies have documented numerous grave sites on the larger 808-acre site and estimate that there may be approximately 6,000 altogether. But, with the exception of the statement of a local farmer, there is no documentation concerning human remains on the enclosed 124-acre site of immediate concern.
Nonetheless, native Americans not only believe other sites to be present, they consider the entire site sacred burial ground. They also ask, why do the developers plan to buy 808 acres if they only intend to use 124 acres? What is to keep them from using the area as a landfill after they have taken the available cover dirt?
Bob Moyer, director of strategic planning for corporate real estate for Eastman-Kodak stated in a telephone interview: ``We understand the difficulty with landfill issues, but at this point in time, for us to sell the property, we have no choice. These are the people who can buy the land.'' Previously the land has been leased for farming, an activity the native Americans do not see as desecration.
Archie Mouse, Cherokee and president of the Alliance, explains that the idea of ``sensitively'' locating the graves just won't work, pointing out the Catch-22 of Mr. Runyeon's explanation of how the city will search for graves in order to avoid them.
``In essence they're going down with the intent to find grave sites. In order to do that they have to desecrate the graves,'' he says. ``To locate the graves they have to use a metal probe that easily can crush a skull or ribs. That is desecration. And by state law archaeologists can keep unearthed skeletons for six months, and then maybe six months more, before giving them back to the Indians for reinterment. That is desecration.''
Although far from a homogeneous group, a vast majority of native Americans believe in ``the sacred hoop,'' the idea that the spirit of a native American cannot complete his or her trip back to Mother Earth until the bones themselves become dust. Thus, disinterred remains are imprisoned in a nightmare limbo.
Despite increasing awareness on the part of the general public and museums, for example, concerning the religious significance of native American remains and artifacts, native American spokespersons insist that the Indian is still treated as an object of study, and rarely as a subject in his or her own right.
Nick Fielder, director of Tennessee's Division of Archaeology, agrees, however, with the city that any archaeological sites can be treated sensitively.
``An archaeologist will be on site to examine where each core will be drilled,'' he says. ``He will dig by hand or backhoe first to check the site.''
Fielder adds, ``What I have trouble with is [that] we have no idea what the spiritual beliefs were of the people who did the burying, which happened between 3,000 and 11,000 years ago. The statements of the modern Indians are their own beliefs.''
But Sonny Rodrique, an Apache and an Alliance member, disagrees. He explains that when native Americans pray to the Great Father, ``we pray for all our relations, for all our brothers and sisters, for all those who lived before us, for the land and the trees, for the animals, for Mother Earth. We are all related.''
FOR these native Americans, community transcends time, and responsibility is due to those who have come before as well as to those who follow.
Attorney Susan Garner suggests that even if others don't understand the religious bond the native Americans feel they share with their ancestors, they still need to respect it.
``There is an obvious analogy to what happened with black people in this country,'' she says. ``They weren't seen as human. There weren't rights and laws protecting black people. We see that in our laws here and now with Indians. This is a human rights as well as a religious issue.''
Garner and Norwood are working as cooperating attorneys with the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice (TLPJ), a public-interest group based in Washington, D.C., of approximately 700 lawyers who work ``pro bono and take only cases that have public interest,'' says TLPJ spokesperson Mary Parker. When asked for her reaction to Chancellor Brandt's ruling, Ms. Parker replied, ``It's not over yet.''
Perhaps Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce speaks most eloquently for on this subject: ``The final insult to any nation of people is the desecration of graves.''