Human remains found at Trail of Tears State Park may be those of a Native American buried long ago.
Capt. David James of the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff’s Department told the Southeast Missourian the remains could be part of a Native American group called the Wolf People.
James says a family was visiting the park about two weeks ago when one of the children found what appeared to be a jaw bone. The Sheriff’s department, along with the Missouri State Highway Patrol and other law-enforcement agencies were called and that led to an investigation in which other bones were found.
A mother and father were hiking the trail with their children when their son spotted the bone in some leaves near a bench on which they were resting.
A mole had been burrowing near the bench, which is probably why the bone was so close to the surface, someone from the sheriff’s department said.
Other bones soon were found.
Meanwhile, the trail is closed until further notice, according to mostateparks.com. That may be because the area is being studied to determine whether the remains are part of a larger burial ground, although no one would confirm that directly.
Jennifer Bengtson, an assistant professor of anthropology at Southeast Missouri State University who was called in to study the remains and confirmed their likely origins, declined to comment for this story because of the cultural sensitivity associated with American Indian resting places.
“Native American tribes have a deep concern for the protection of their heritage, and as a professional archaeologist, I share their concerns,” she wrote in an email to the Southeast Missourian.
Denise Dowling, natural resource manager at the park, cited a state statute governing the discovery of unmarked human remains.
It indicates whenever an unmarked human burial or human skeletal remains are reported to the state preservation officer, efforts have to be made to identify the remains, notify any descendants or find out whether the remains are part of a particular ethnic group. The group then would advise on how the remains should be disposed.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act also plays a role. It protects the rights of tribes when physical and cultural remains are found.
Trail of Tears State Park includes a visitor’s center that recounts how Cherokee groups being relocated to Oklahoma crossed the Mississippi River during the harsh winter of 1838 and 1839, with thousands dying during the march.