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Why it's important to protect sacred, historic burial states across the U.S.


What happens to unmarked graves? Many of this country's most sacred sites, burial grounds, are at risk of being destroyed by development and climate change. One federal agency has new guidelines that it hopes will preserve sacred burial sites. Sara Bronin is the chair of the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. She joins us now to talk about this. Sara, so first off, right off the bat, why is it important to preserve sacred burial grounds?

SARA BRONIN: Because these are the places where our ancestors were laid to rest, and they deserve respect. And for far too long, both federal agencies and other public and private actors have taken actions that disturb human remains and our ancestors, and that really has to come to an end, and that's why we need to address that issue.

MARTÍNEZ: How often does it happen that the federal government realizes that it's actually building on a sacred burial site?

BRONIN: We don't have a good catalog as to the number of times a federal agency will make an unanticipated discovery of an unmarked grave, but we do know that there have been high-profile incidents ranging from GSA courthouse in lower Manhattan in the 1990s to even, this year, federal agencies and their private contractors unearthing information about unmarked graves. This has come up again and again for courthouses, for highways.

MARTÍNEZ: What if the land that the burial grounds are on - what if it can be used to address, say, an urgent public need? - shelters for people who are unhoused, for example. Why wouldn't that be an argument against preserving burial grounds?

BRONIN: Many times, there will be a public need or a stated public interest in getting a project done. What our policy statement tries to do, though, is to put the thumb on the scales of respect and integrity for these sites, respect for a very awful history of cultural assimilation, of slavery, of colonization that has led to the mistreatment of, particularly, those resting places of tribal members and members of the African American community. We see all of that as being the legacy that we are responding to in this policy statement and making sure that, again, federal agencies and others weigh that legacy and really take that into account before they take any kind of action that would disturb these sites.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, with the destructive effects of climate change, it's going to mean that, likely, we're going to be rebuilding more and more. So how do governments and developers make sure that they're doing that - that rebuilding - more responsibly?

BRONIN: There are examples of cemeteries and resting places all over the country that are being eroded by increased precipitation. Olivewood Cemetery in my hometown of Houston is an example of a historically Black cemetery where erosion and increased precipitation and increased development around the site have led to runoff that is, unfortunately, disturbing the ground and disturbing the graves, including children's graves, in that location. So recognizing the impacts of climate change, the impacts of increased stormwater, planning for those and investing in these places and their protection is critically important, and it's something that we urge federal agencies, state and local governments and private partners to do.

MARTÍNEZ: That is Sara Bronin, chair of the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. Sara, thank you.

BRONIN: Thank you.


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