Suburban sprawl spurs fights over sacred Indian sites

Across the US, native Americans try to protect sites like Toltec Mounds in Arkansas.

Toltec Mounds stands as silent a reminder of more simple days, when time was told by the sun instead of digital gadgets.

The archaeological site - one of the largest and most unusual in the South - was used by the Plum Bayou Indians as religious and cultural grounds from AD 700 to 1050. The mounds are especially popular during the summer and winter solstices, when people visit to see the seasons tell time by the way the sun rises and sets.

But progress from nearby Little Rock may infringe on the mounds. GenPower LLC, a private energy company based in Needham, Mass., plans to build a $350 million power plant about 1-1/2 miles away. Local enthusiasts see it providing jobs and much-needed electricity for the impoverished Lower Mississippi Valley. But preservationists worry about despoiling an ancient treasure.

"You can't just build a power plant in front of a site that needs the sun to make it historically significant," says Jim Walsmith, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Arkansas. "A power plant will lose the cultural integrity and sacredness of this place."

As suburban sprawl encroaches on America's green spaces, a growing number of sacred native-American sites are under threat from housing developments and industrial plants. From Florida to Ohio to Arkansas, native-American groups are fighting battles with state and federal governments to protect places, including burial sites, where ancestors worshiped.

Native Americans have recently protested:

• A Chicago-based company's plans for an open-pit clay mine and cat-litter plant in a community north of Reno, Nev.

• A luxury townhouse development in White Bear Lake, Minn., that would partially surround a mound thought to house remains from 700 years ago.

• The construction of a casino in Black Hills, N.D., that threatens an area prominent in native-American history.

"It is the official opinion of any native American that if you disturb a burial site, the soul or spirit ... will forever be at unrest," says Fred Dayhoff, a consultant for a Florida tribe. "These people will wander forever trying to find their belongings or their remains. They have to be left alone."

In Arkansas, Lt. Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller (R) placed Toltec Mounds on the state's most endangered sites list earlier this year, after lobbying from preservationists. Although a state park, the site is not protected from the encroachment of power lines and smokestacks, which could obstruct visitors' views of the sunrise. An energy substation already exists near the mounds.

"It's the cultural integrity of a place," says Martha Rolingson, the park's archaeologist. "A place like this doesn't need houses on one side and a power plant on the other."

But GenPower sees it differently. "Lonoke County is one of the poorest counties in Arkansas, and any economic development will help the county and the school district substantially," says project manager Joe Sharbaugh, in the company's statement. "We want to protect the historic heritage of the area and enhance the economics of the community."

In lieu of paying property taxes for 25 years, GenPower will pay a predetermined amount of money to local schools. The company is also considering planting trees to block the view of the plant's smokestacks.

But that's not enough for Carrie Lewis, a representative of the Quapaw tribe. She's afraid more industry will prevent archaeologists from studying the area around the sites that could have artifacts or remains.

Not everything, however, is bad news for people like Ms. Lewis. For example, a recently discovered Tequesta Indian cemetery somehow managed to elude destruction and discovery for 2,000 years among the high rises of Miami's financial district.

The site, which is protected by state law, is one of the last undeveloped spots in a glitzy area of the city. Buried there are Indians who likely built an ancient mysterious stone circle discovered two years ago along the Miami River.

"You never know," says Lewis, "what will turn up."

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