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Preserving the Bend's history Bill to make Chattanooga peninsula part of park system stalled, but expected to pass

Chattanooga Times Free Press - Friday, November 1, 2002 - front page

By Angie Herrington Staff Writer

For American Indians, decades of looting burial grounds at Moccasin Bend was the final injustice.

"You can feel the spiritual element out here," said Alva Crowe, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokees. "When we first came out here you could feel the anger."

Now a bill to make the Chattanooga peninsula part of the national park system is stalled in the U.S. Senate, but federal lawmakers said they are hopeful it will pass both chambers before the session adjourns in late December.

Repaired by time and human hands, most of the looters' holes have been filled, and a blanket of green grass now covers one burial ground. But stepping onto the field dotted with hardwood trees still reveals many depressions in the earth and an occasional crater from past digging. Mr. Crowe and his wife, Nancy, said they've been working for 20 years to have Moccasin Bend under federal protection.

"Almost every place you step your foot is an archaeology site," Ms. Crowe said. "We want it preserved and protected so time or human greed doesn't destroy it."

A LIVING HISTORY TEXT

Archaeology work has revealed tools and implements of human occupation at Moccasin Bend dating as far back as 10,000 B.C., said anthropologist Raymond Evans, who conducted work at the site in the late 1970s and 1980s.

The importance of Moccasin Bend rests in the fact that most of it still is relatively undeveloped and well preserved, he said.

No chapter of the site's history may be as well recorded as that of the 16th-century Spanish contact with American Indians during explorations throughout the Southeast, Mr. Evans said."This site has international significance because there's very few sites known from the Spanish Colonial era, particularly away from the ocean," he said.

Spanish trade and gift items have been recovered from the remnants of an American Indian town at the Bend that was destroyed in the late 1600s, Mr. Evans said.

Today, a towering tree stands beneath a section of the town archaeologists have studied. A red bandana, ribbon and feathers are among the mementos visitors have tied to the tree as tokens of respect.

The town was named Tuskigi, and the people who occupied it were called the Napochies, Mr. Evans said.

"It had a wall around it and a moat and probably had 200 to 300 houses," he said.

Hundreds of years later, in 1838, two groups of Cherokees crossed Moccasin Bend on their way to the unknown lands of present-day Oklahoma during the forced removal known as the Trail of Tears.

Mr. Evans said Moccasin Bend was farmed until Civil War times, when the area became an important artillery position for Union forces under siege by the Confederates at Chattanooga in 1863. Archaeologists have found remnants of cannon placements and rifle pits on Moccasin Bend. Mr. Evans said the places where the soldiers built defensive dirt walls for protection still can be seen.

"You can't see anything like this that soldiers actually built themselves at the military park in Chickamauga," he said.

This is not the first time Moccasin Bend has come close to gaining national park status. In 1950, legislation to make Moccasin Bend part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park had been passed by both chambers of the U.S. Congress and signed by President Truman, but later then-Gov. Frank Clement withdrew state support for the project.

Now politics again is involved in determining the Bend's future.

THE FUTURE

Moccasin Bend would become part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park under the current bill before the U.S. Senate.

The site would be known as the Moccasin Bend National Archaeological District. Its boundaries would not include the mental health hospital and the golf course on the peninsula. Pat Reed, superintendent of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, said park officials have discussed what to do if the bill is passed this year.

"We would start putting together our general management plan, and that in itself could be a two- to three-year process," he said.

But Mr. Reed said placement of park signs and some limited interpretive programs could be started on Moccasin Bend relatively soon.

Last month lawmakers said they were confident the bill would be on President Bush's desk before Oct. 18 and before Congress adjourned for the Nov. 5 election. But officials seem less certain now that the bill will pass before the end-of-session deadline in late December.

"There will likely be another opportunity to consider (the bill) after the elections," said U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn.

U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said, "We're not aware of any policy concerns which could delay its approval."

U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R- Tenn., said he has gotten commitments from House members that the bill will be passed the day after it passes in the Senate. Mickey Robbins, president of Friends of Moccasin Bend, a group that has led the effort to preserve the peninsula as a national park, said the opportunity to interpret history at the nearly 1,000-acre site cannot be lost.

"Most of all we don't want the project to languish and don't want the property to sit there unused," he said.

E-mail Angie Herrington at [email protected]

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