Battle Over Indian Burial Site Continues

By Noble Sprayberry and Monica Whitaker, Staff Writer
November 29, 2000

A legal battle sparked by the discovery of Indian graves continues to stall expansion of a busy intersection on the border of Davidson and Williamson counties, leaving some homeowners in limbo with no foreseeable end.

“It’s the perpetual not-knowing that bothers everybody,’’ said Toni Davis, who lost a slice of yard to the project at the intersection of Hillsboro Road and Old Hickory Boulevard, where almost 29,000 cars pass daily.

In early 1999, road-widening crews unearthed 800-year-old graves containing the remains of two Native American infants, a find that quickly stopped construction. While a dispute over the fate of the graves initially landed in the courts of Davidson and Williamson counties, it now awaits a Tennessee Court of Appeals ruling.

That court must decide if anyone living today retains the legal right to contest the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s relocation of the graves. Williamson County Chancellor Russ Heldman ruled that Native American groups could formally join a lawsuit to protect the graves.

The decision by Heldman, who in a separate case also delayed construction of a portion of State Route 840 in Williamson County, broadened the interpretation of a Tennessee law that gave legal standing to only the blood relatives of the dead or buried.

Joe McCaleb, an attorney who represents 12 of the 15 Native Americans challenging TDOT, said his clients are more concerned with getting well-reasoned opinions than a quick appellate court decision.

“We think that the issues are very profound and involve some deep-seated constitutional issues that necessarily require time and thought. A lot of time and thought went into preparation of this case,’’ he said. “We certainly would like the justices to deliberately consider their opinions, and I’m sure that they are.’’

Even the Tennessee Commission of Indian Affairs, which faces the threat of being phased out of existence, is not pressing for a speedy decision.

For years, Native American voices weren’t allowed a forum in the courts over the grave issue, said Toye Heape, the commission’s executive director. The courts can take their time considering those voices now, he said.

State legislators said earlier this fall that the commission’s sunset is scheduled for June 2002 unless an ad hoc group can devise concrete goals for the commission and work to minimize infighting among Native Americans.

In an extreme case, if no court decision is rendered and the commission dissolves, this case would continue with the individuals challenging state transportation officials, Heape said.

Department of Transportation spokeswoman Luanne Grandinetti would not comment on the legal issues.

The project, once scheduled for completion next month, stopped while only 32% complete.

If the state wins a favorable court ruling, completion would take about a year, Grandinetti said. The state would renegotiate contracts for the work, which would likely cost more than the original $1.9 million, she said.

Meanwhile, residents such as Davis must wait to learn if road crews will return to finish the project, which eliminated 216 trees that once shielded the home she shares with her husband, Butch, from the road. Now, there’s only a jumble of debris that’s impossible to tend.

Davis said she respects the issues stalling construction, but also wants either removal of construction debris or confirmation of the project’s future.

“Even if you’re just a resident who wanted to keep the roadside looking nice, you can’t,’’ she said.