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American Indian Burial Site Laws: If I find it, can I keep it?

April 14, 2014
A girl in traditional American Indian wardrobe dancing at the Ocmulgee National Monument Indian Celebration

Have you ever been to the Ocmulgee National Park? Can you imagine the history and wonder that resides in those mounds? One might expect to find an arrowhead or even a body buried deep under all that dirt.

But what about the rest of Georgia? The American Indians of our past (and of many people’s ancestry) didn’t just stay in one area, but instead roamed all over Georgia. There could be an artifact (urns, tools, clothing, jewelry, weapons or even human remains) in your own backyard.

Does that mean that it’s yours by law? If something from the Native Americans of our past is buried on your property, is it rightfully yours?

Unfortunately, it’s not. According to the Official Code of Georgia 36-72-1, human remains or burial objects from Native Americans is not yours if you own the land in which these items were found. Also, if you come across any of these objects, you must, by law (12-3-52), report them to your local authorities.

Native American burial site laws in Georgia extensively cover what you can and cannot do — even on your own property. Don’t mess with anything that could be historically significant and always report to the authorities if you know of someone disturbing a grave or artifact.

The major exceptions to these laws apply to anthropologists (one who has a Ph.D. in physical anthropology and is actively working as one) and archeologists (has the criteria or is a member of the Society of Professional Archaeologists and has formal training in digging and extracting artifacts). They have the right to dig and extract American Indian remains. However, they must possess a permit (even the exceptions to the law must still get specific permission).

Who made these laws?

In 1992, the Georgia General Assembly voted to create the Georgia Council on American Indian Concern. This Council was tasked with protecting Indian burial sites and helping with the legality of ownership for human remains and burial objects.

The Council, whose members are appointed by the Governor, is made up of 9 people consisting of American Indians, archeologists, anthropologists and at least one person of the general public. All members must be legal residents of Georgia.

Georgia's history with American Indians is a long and deep one. It is important that we work together to keep that history alive and preserved for our children. This is the main goal of all these laws and the commitment the Council on American Indian Concern aims to achieve.

Photo Courtesy of the Ocmulgee National Monument

About the Author

Bethany McDaniel is the Editorial Director for GeorgiaGov. She graduated from Berry College in Rome, Ga., with degrees in Visual Communication and History.

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