St. Johns challenge: Fix wetlands but respect graves
St. Johns River Water Management District engineer Ralph Brown walks the dike surrounding an ancient burial mound near Fellesmere. (George Skene, Orlando Sentinel / January 22, 2010)
FELLSMERE - Local tribes began burying their dead along this part of the St. Johns River about 7,000 years ago, and for several millennia left behind animal bones, clam shells, broken pottery, tools and arrowheads.
Now, at least three areas of concentrated remains are within a tract that spans 15 square miles west of the farm community of Fellsmere. The land, about an hour's drive south of Orlando, is the future site of a vast reservoir to hold agricultural drainage as part of a $100 million environmental project.
Florida's Miccosukee and Seminole tribes are appalled. They want the sacred and prehistoric sites kept above water and protected.
"You probably have ancestors that are buried somewhere in a cemetery, and if somebody came in and said, "I'm going to put a levee around your cemetery and use your cemetery so a farmer could dump his pollution, it would just be ridiculous," said Fred Dayhoff, a former federal park ranger who represents theMiccosukee Tribe on archaeological matters. "We can't see putting a storm-water sewer-treatment system right on top of an ancient burial."
The fate of any ancient burial mound — or midden — in Florida is a very sensitive matter to the modern tribes. State and federal agencies deem the Miccosukees and Seminoles the guardians of such remains, a responsibility the two tribes consider a cultural and ancestral duty.
Tribal representatives rarely acknowledge publicly the location or contents of mounds, knowing and despising that grave robbers and artifact hunters have desecrated other burial sites.
Archaeologists estimate that there are hundreds of middens in Florida, many of them small and undiscovered but also some large ones uncovered by a developer's bulldozer.
Damage to repair
The issue of what to do about the three mounds not far from Fellsmere has been swept up by the state's pursuit of two pressing goals: repairing environmentally damaged waterways and securing new sources of drinking water for future population growth.
The St. Johns River is at the heart of both objectives in Central and North Florida. The north-flowing river bares the scars of extensive ecosystem damage, and counties and communities in the region have targeted it as a future water supply now that the state's primary water source, the Floridan Aquifer, has been stretched to its limits.
During the 1960s, federal workers ditched and drained many of the wetlands that feed the St. Johns' headwaters. Much harm was done before the project was abandoned. Since then, an ongoing restoration has been rendering the headwaters region into a mosaic of marshes and reservoirs that, though far from natural, are meant to mimic nature and ensure a reliable flow of water.
Nearly every bit of the watery landscape, which extends over hundreds of thousands of acres from south of Yeehaw Junction to almost east of Orlando, is regulated by levees, dams, pumps and canals.
An agency at the forefront of the resuscitation, the St. Johns River Water Management District, began developing in 2001 a piece of the restoration mosaic that eventually evolved into a 10,000-acre reservoir meant to keep dirty citrus-grove water from getting into the river.
Caught by surprise
Early on, the district informed state archaeologists, who concurred that flooding the remains would be appropriate, as it would thwart pillaging and retard any decay of artifacts. But after several project delays, federal officials weighed in on the issue and learned that the tribes opposed inundating burial mounds.
"That caught us a bit by surprise," said Jeff Elledge, the management district's director of water resources.
During the past century, the mounds have been disturbed by tractors, cattle and canal construction, so that now they are only a few feet high. But they extend many feet into the ground and dozens of yards across. And they contain a "tremendous amount" of artifacts, said Jeff Gardner, a senior archaeologist with Brockington and Associates.
In 2007, Gardner's Georgia company probed two of the mounds and found no intact skeletons. Workers did encounter dense layers of fragments that included human fingers and toes, and bones of animals, from mice to deer.
To tribal representatives, the mounds don't simply contain sacred items that can be dug up and moved; rather, the mounds themselves are sacred in their entirety.
According to Willard Steele, a Seminole tribe historic-preservation officer, middens are regarded as the places from which spirits come and go. Water, according to widely shared beliefs, is a barrier to that movement, which is a key reason why tribes don't want mounds submerged, he said.
It's not the only archaeological site located in the midst of environmental projects. Not far down the St. Johns River is a 14,000-acre reservoir project managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, where early surveys found relics of ancient living places. In the Everglades, the South Florida Water Management District has constructed double-levee systems to protect three burial mounds.
But the remains near Fellsmere are testing the trust and patience of all involved, in part because so much of the project was completed before the tribes were approached by federal authorities. State and federal laws require that tribes be consulted, but there's very little in the laws that say specifically what to do.
"This is as much an art as a science," said Jeff Collins, acting chief of the Army Corps' permitting unit in Jacksonville.
He and state officials say the tribes will be heard.
"We take their recommendations very seriously," said state archaeologist Ryan Wheeler in Tallahassee.
Among the options being discussed, none is considered desirable by all parties. They include raising the mounds' elevations, capping them with additional soil, building berms around them, or redesigning the reservoir to avoid the sites. Moving the remains may be the most likely, but least-liked, outcome.
Either side can go to court in search of a solution. But the tribes can also turn to an even higher authority should the water district do a poor job with the remains.
"The burden is on you," said Dayhoff, speaking of water-district officials, "because, if there is a guiding spirit above all of us and he thinks you did wrong, well, you're the one who did wrong."
Kevin Spear can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5062.
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