Quapaw, OK (April 20th, 2021) – Chairman of the Quapaw Nation, Joseph Tali Byrd, gave testimony in the western Arkansas District located in Fort Smith, Arkansas, on April 7th, 2021. The testimony came more than five years after an individual was charged with violating the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (ARPA). ARPA aims to protect irreplaceable archaeological resources and sites on federal, public, and Indian lands.
The looter(s) in question attempted to loot known Indian burial sites, which the Quapaw shares with other Native Nations. The present-day state of Arkansas is the homelands of the Quapaw, Osage, and Caddo Nations. Quapaw ancestors, and those of other nations, are buried throughout the state and sacred funerary objects. Those objects have been illegally excavated and sold on the black market.
For the Quapaw People, this court date signifies the change in attitude towards Native Americans. A change often overlooked as Native Americans have waited patiently for justice to catch up to the laws made to provide that justice.
For the better part of history, humans have always reached for what was there before them. This misguided practice has been monetized, and for that reason, a "treasure hunter" status seems to exist, even when those dig sites are discovered to be burial grounds or digs of sacred sites. Potential looters have disregarded those factors in search of riches. Still, with Chairman Byrd's testimony and the gavel of justice swinging down on the unnamed individual(s), Native American's gained a victory in protecting those sites. Joseph Byrd had this to say when asked about his testimony;
"As if five hundred years of genocide wasn't already enough, today tribal nations still deal with non-native peoples digging up the bones of our ancestors. I am pleased with the efforts of the Western District of Arkansas US Attorneys Office and the National Park Service to investigate and prosecute the violation. It is my hope this will send a clear message to would-be looters; there are severe consequences tied to the perversive nature of desecrating Indian burial sites."
Located below is the entire testimony.
Testimony of Quapaw Nation Chairman Joseph Tali Byrd in the United States District Court in Fort Smith, Arkansas On the Importance of the Preservation of Cultural Heritage Assets on all Lands:
Ha-way, my name is Joseph Tali Byrd. My Indian name is Xu-tha-zhu-tsi, which means Red Eagle. I am the Chairman of the Quapaw Nation or the Ogahpah. Quapaw is a Degiha tribal nation with ancestral and cultural affiliations to the land and waters of the Mississippi River Valley, including the State of Arkansas. Arkansas gets its name from the Arkansa people, the Ogahpah people, my people. Our ancestors existed on this land and lived off the land long before European Nations first stepped foot on it and claimed discovery. My ancestors maintained complex civilizations and political-social structures for millennia, which allowed them to be a dominant force in the region through warfare and trade. Earthen mounds are a key attribute of the Mississippian culture, often built for religious, communal, and burial functions. These ancient mounds are scattered through a network of sites all along the watersheds of Arkansas, including the Buffalo National River, a site that Quapaw has long been culturally affiliated with, along with other tribal nations.
Throughout the United States history, we as Indigenous people have overcome tremendous adversity, and unfortunately, out of necessity, remain extremely familiar with our traditional burial practices. Our burial ceremonies have been handed down from generation to generation within our tribe. When we bury our loved ones, they are buried with the expectation that their remains will be left undisturbed, and they will make a peaceful journey to the great beyond. Unfortunately, this is often not the case for my people's ancestral sites due to looters and treasure hunters that illegally excavate and unearth human remains and funerary objects throughout the region. As if five hundred years of genocide was not already enough, today Indigenous people still deal with non-native peoples digging up our ancestors' bones. Federal law is finally catching up to address these issues; however, justice for our ancestors is far from realization considering the multitudes of Indigenous sacred sites that have been desecrated over the years.
With differing philosophies between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples across the globe, there is one glaring similarity among all civilizations; we lay our ancestors to rest out of respect, in hopes they will find eternal peace in the afterlife. A person who digs up the remains from a local church cemetery in search of treasure is no different from one who loots Indian burial sites for the purpose of reselling the artifacts. Disturbing ancient sites by digging priceless artifacts of a funerary nature to resell them is not only illegal, but it is also contrary to the fundamental bond we share as human beings.
So on behalf of my Ogahpah people and other tribal nations affiliated with the Mississippi culture, I would like to extend my gratitude to the National Park Service law enforcement officers for investigating and the United States Attorney's Office, Western District of Arkansas, for prosecuting these violations of federal law along the Buffalo National River. Although the damage caused by illegal excavation at these sites is irreparable, there is comfort in knowing there are laws in place to protect my ancestors' remains better, and justice will be served here today.