The Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will soon begin returning artifacts to culturally affiliated tribes from Etowah Indian Mounds State Historic Site in Cartersville. Repatriation is mandated by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a federal law enacted in 1990.
Changes to the museum reflect a growing cultural shift that takes emphasis off artifacts and focuses on Indigenous people who thrived and were stewards of the land. Etowah remains an important religious and cultural site to Indigenous tribes from the Southeast. Many died there more than 1,000 years ago, and Indigenous ancestors are still buried at the site. The DNR is working closely with federally recognized descendant tribal partners to ensure respectful and accurate interpretation of the Muskogean Tribal Town that their ancestors built on the banks of the Etowah River.
Between 1954 and 1973, archaeologists working for the state excavated all of Mound C, the main burial mound, and other areas throughout this sacred site. Since the early 1960s, hundreds of ancestral Muscogee property including artifacts and funerary belongings have been on display in the site’s museum. While human remains were removed from display decades ago, the ancestors have yet to be repatriated and reburied and are currently housed in an archaeological curation facility.
Etowah is one of the most well-known Mississippian-period mound centers in the Southeast. The area was home to several thousand people between 1000 A.D. to 1550 A.D. Today, the 54-acre historic site protects six earthen mounds, a grass plaza, village site, borrow pits and defensive ditch. The original inhabitants are culturally linked to the Muskogean-Speaking tribes, and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation is the lead culturally affiliated tribe that will take charge of transfer of control and reburial of Etowah ancestors.
Officials emphasize that Etowah Indian Mounds State Historic Site will remain open to the public and school groups. Visitors can watch a 15-minute film, learn about the Indigenous people who lived in the area, and walk throughout the cultural landscape. Plans include more ranger-led programs to interpret daily life, such as fishing, hunting and agriculture. A dug-out canoe recently made using traditional methods is already on display.
DNR historians and archaeologists are beginning to consult with tribal partners on how museum displays will be permanently reimagined, so a timeline for completion is not available. The museum space will be under transformation until spring 2023, and the repatriation of Etowah’s more than 400 ancestors and their 187,000 funerary belongings is expected to take three to five years. DNR will continue to partner with tribal nations culturally affiliated with the site to ensure respectful repatriation and to work toward building a better relationship that benefits all who come to the site.
Etowah Indian Mounds State Historic Site is located in Cartersville, Georgia and is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. To learn more, visit GaStateParks.org/etowahindianmounds.
Etowah Indian Mounds State Historic Site and the Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)
Facts & FAQs
NAGPRA is a federal law enacted in 1990 that provides a process for federal agencies and museums receiving federal funding to return Native American human remains and cultural items to lineal descendants and federally recognized tribes. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is dedicated to the law’s ethical basis, to respectfully telling our region’s Native American histories, and to collaborating with indigenous groups with ancestral ties to Georgia. Items subject to repatriation include funerary, sacred and cultural patrimony items, as well as human remains. Everything from a burial context is subject to NAGPRA.
DNR’s repatriation efforts for Etowah began shortly after the law was enacted in the early 1990s. An inventory of items was completed in 1996. Etowah is culturally affiliated with five Muskogean-speaking tribes: the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Thlopthlocco Tribal Town, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, Alabama-Quassarte Tribal Town and Kialegee Tribal Town. The Notice of Inventory Completion was published in the Federal Register in 2009. In 2021, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation filed an official repatriation claim for the more than 187,000 funerary objects and 404 ancestors under DNR control.
Because more than eight institutions across the country hold ancestors and associated funerary items from Etowah, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation has made several Etowah Repatriation Claims, including at the Smithsonian.
When will this project at Etowah begin?
Removing NAGPRA items from exhibit will begin in late January 2023, and the process of reuniting ancestors with their funerary belongings is expected to take three to five years. DNR historians and archaeologists are still considering how museum displays will be permanently reimagined, so a timeline for completion is not yet available. The museum space will be under transformation until spring 2023.
Will Etowah Indian Mounds remain open?
Yes. The theater, gift shop and outdoor grounds will remain open to the public and educational groups.
How will this change the museum?
The current exhibit room will be transformed into a temporary interactive learning center to showcase how people lived during the Mississippian period (1000-1550 CE). This learning center will highlight the continued vibrancy of indigenous cultures originating from the Southeast.
Can visitors still access the top of the mounds?
Yes. Visitors may still walk up the staircase to the top of the mounds.
What will happen to the artifacts?
Ownership of all NAGPRA items and decisions about their care will be transferred to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. The goal is to reunite all funerary belongings with their ancestors for reburial.
Is this happening at other Native American historic sites in Georgia?
Yes. Native American historic sites, as well as museums with archaeological collections nationwide, are working with culturally affiliated tribes to repatriate collections subject to NAGPRA. Here in Georgia, the National Park Service worked with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and other tribal nations to repatriate individuals back to Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park (formerly Ocmulgee National Monument) in Macon.
An initial inventory of NAGPRA items for Kolomoki Mounds State Park was completed by DNR in 1996, however cultural affiliation was not determined. DNR is committed to reinitiating consultation for this collection to determine tribal affiliation so that repatriation may be completed. DNR has completed NAGRPA consultations for other locations in Georgia including New Echota State Historic Site and a site in Jackson County.
Can Etowah Indian Mounds keep any of the items currently on display?
DNR historians and archaeologists will follow the guidance of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation regarding whether items can go back on display in the future. Artifacts that were excavated from non-burial contexts may be considered for exhibition, along with modern art pieces created by tribal members.