Burial Site Disturbed in Mitchell, SD

A homeowner in Mitchell SD was expanding his house, and inadvertently disturbed some Native American remains: http://www.mitchellrepublic.com/event/article/id/52594.

This is an annual occurrence every spring when construction season begins.   In this particular case, we know a bit more than usual for three reasons.  First, the newspaper reported the address of the event; that was ill-considered as treasure hunters and unbalanced folks will flock there.  (Really.  When I was digging a cemetery in MN, I had more than a few requests from odd people who wanted coffin nails, bits of wood etc.).  Second, Adrien Hannus, one of the most knowledgeable archaeologists in South Dakota (and beyond) is just down the road at Augustana College.  Third, I had a few minutes to poke around in the digital realm.

The house, and the neighboring houses, sit upon a known prehistoric site, probably a village.  That doesn’t mean anyone knew there were burials there, it just means they had found enough artifacts to indicate some sort of concentrated activity in the past.  As Adrien Hannus points out in the news article, the spot (overlooking Firesteel Creek) is an obvious one to find a site and/or burials.   It’s the sort of spot where I usually tell my clients they should just move on, rather than pay me to bring them news they don’t want.   The site was discovered back in 1978.

Using the location provided by the Daily Republic, plus a photo with locational information in the first report (http://www.mitchellrepublic.com/event/article/id/52519/), I was able to identify which house disturbed the remains.  [No, I won’t tell you; figure it out on your own].  Google Earth has an extremely useful device that lets you peruse historic air photos.   From those photos I can tell you that the house in question was not there in 1997, and construction was in process in 1998.  Given that the site was discovered 20 years before the home was built, chances that the homeowner knew anything about the existing archaeological site are about zero.

Could this have been prevented?  In theory, yes; in practice, probably not.  South Dakota has an excellent GIS of known archaeological sites.  The information is not publicly available, but one can hire a qualified individual to check the data.  This is what happens with many State and Federal projects, as they are required to do just that.   We can envision a system where building permits are run against a central database, and if a site is present, folks can be warned.  But then what?  They could learn that somebody found some bison bones and an arrowhead 20 years ago, but the info doesn’t help them know what else is there.  They could hire a qualified individual to come survey their property, but that’s going to cost them some serious $.  The city/county/state could require them to hire someone, but that’s an idea that won’t go far in the current political climate.  Even if it were on the books, there wouldn’t be anyone to watch compliance and quality of work.

South Dakota, like most states, has a statute that makes intentionally disturbing unrecorded burials a crime.  Unintentional disturbances are, well, unintentional.  In South Dakota, if you are party to such an unintentional disturbance, you have 48 hours to report it.  Failure to do so is a crime.

There is one helpful thing that some States do; I confess I don’t know if SD is one of them.  For known burial sites, some States make an attachment to the deed, so that the property owner knows there are burials on their property.  But even in the States that do this, it tends to happen only for newly discovered sites.    I do know there are plenty of burial sites that are not mentioned on existing deeds.   I looked at about a dozen such deeds last year, and talked to a few property owners who claimed they knew nothing about the burials on their land.   Deed attachments are a simple, low-cost helper.  Disturbances to known burial sites happen all too often; if I hear of such a case I can post here, I will.