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Preserving Culture & History - Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Report

Preserving Culture & History

A Spotlight on the Past

TVA teams help protect and promote the region’s cultural heritage

A commitment to diversity requires values to be generational, not static – acknowledging the past while creating equitable paths forward. TVA’s service territory spans many areas that carry historical and culture significance. The land beneath our feet is filled with customs, languages and traditions that span centuries. Along with being good stewards of the land itself, TVA’s specialists work to honor these stories.

The protection of customs and language is directly related to the preservation of the land and its people, Andrew Gordon, TVA HR technology manager, said. Gordon, champion of TVA’s Council of Native Americans Employee Resource Group, detailed the cultural and ecological value of river cane, specifically to Indigenous Tribes such as the Cherokee and Choctaw.

“River cane provided environmental value such as protective buffers along waterways, reducing runoff and erosion,” he said. “By putting effort into growing and spreading this native plant, we are helping this culturally significant basketry and land protection to continue.”

“‘Aaniin’ is a greeting spoken by younger generations. It literally means, ‘I see your light,’ a deeper greeting.

Andrew Gordon

Safeguarding heritage

TVA historian Pat Ezzell started out in the Cultural Resources group, working to ensure TVA complied with the National Historic Preservation Act. “I had the privilege of serving as TVA’s first Tribal liaison, which allowed me to work with, at that time, 18 federally recognized Tribes that had an interest in this region,” Ezzell said.

Leading the Cultural Resources team, Ezzell helped establish consultations with Tribes. Monthly phone calls kept an open line of communication and, together, they began working toward the repatriation of all Native American Ancestors under TVA’s stewardship.

“Today, as TVA’s historian, I am involved in telling TVA’s story – in sharing how unique we are as an agency and how important we have been in the evolution of this region,” Ezzell said.

Working alongside the region’s people – both Indigenous and transplanted – helps guarantee the intrinsic identity of the Valley region will last for generations. Only then will established practices and old wisdom be preserved.

Balancing modernization and preservation, TVA continues to pave the way in advancing cutting-edge power generation while also safeguarding the region’s cultural heritage. But there is still work to be done.

“Native Americans have experienced generations of actions taken to prevent language and culture from being shared,” Gordon said. “Now we are able to be a part of changing that. The value that is gained by creating a place for Tribal members to share our stories and cultures – and for those that seek to relate, understand and advocate – is immeasurable.”

The driving force of our culture and inclusion initiatives are our employees – showing up as they are, providing their unique perspectives and displaying curiosity to learn about others. My role as Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer involves collaboration, partnership and, most importantly, listening. This work cannot be done alone – it takes all of us to drive successful and measurable results. I know that together we will continue to advance on the journey of inclusion at TVA.

“Traditions handed down through generations are precious nods to the past as people navigate the here and now.” – Pat Ezzell, TVA historian

Pat and Ashely in Tupelo, Tennessee

Healing work

As an archeologist with TVA’s Cultural Compliance team, Abbey Duncan’s approach to preservation is informed by her own background. “As a member of a federally recognized Tribe, I view the work that TVA does not only as a legal requirement, but as an ethical and moral act of reconciliation toward descendant communities,” Duncan said.

Earlier this year, Duncan and fellow TVA archaeologist Steve Cole participated in separate remediation projects that highlighted the importance of site protection in the region — as acts of both moral reconciliation and education regarding grave markers.

“The ancient Indigenous practice of ritual disposal of the dead under stone cairns is very prevalent in the area, yet widely unrecognized by locals,” Cole said. “The clusters of stone cairns are generally piles of large stone slabs, either limestone or sandstone depending on the local geology, measuring up to a meter in height.”

People sometimes confuse these stone cairns with piles of fieldstone that farmers discard along the edges of fields, Cole said. “And so Cultural Compliance created a standard way of documenting stone features to distinguish ancient Indigenous – or precontact – stone features from modern rock piles,” he said.

The Cultural Compliance group identified Ancestral burial grounds that had been desecrated by looters. They repaired the damage and prepared the sites to be capped with looting deterrent.

“As an Indigenous person, it is extremely harmful to see the damage that people do to our Ancestors,” Duncan said. “It is healing work that ensures our Ancestors are where they belong – where they were originally placed, where they are reinterred, or repatriated to their Tribe or descendants.”

TVA’s specialists are stewards of an incredible number of resources, and they’re instrumental in helping to preserve the invaluable knowledge of Tribal communities.

Archeologists work closely with Tribes during the planning of any structure, emphasizing the importance of protection and reinterment practices.

Because the identity of Native American culture is so reliant upon relational growth – with their community and their land – personal connection with the people and their traditions proves to be the most inclusive and equitable act of respect new inhabitants can offer. Often, the best way to connect is to understand the importance of Native Tribes’ language revival amid generations of suppression.

“What people often forget in these modern times is that language is directly intertwined with culture,” Gordon said. “The difference between native languages and English is that English is noun-based, whereas Native languages are verb-based – meaning, we describe life and those around us by their actions, the life they lead. Additionally, we do not attribute pronouns in our languages. When we speak it could be, ‘I am doing,’ or, ‘you are doing,’ but he/she are the same.”

Language brings to life culture. And true recognition of beautiful intricacies like these will make it last.

Where the Beloved Rest

TVA archaeologist Steve Cole partners with Gallatin community members to relocate historic graves

Over the past four years, I had the privilege of being on a team that successfully relocated five historic cemeteries with 121 graves from the Gallatin Fossil Plant reservation to a new home at Crestview Memory Gardens in Gallatin, Tennessee.

In 1952, TVA bought 1,950 acres of rural land on Odom’s Bend from 22 property owners for the steam plant project. TVA removed the farmhouses and outbuildings but left in place the small family cemeteries where people in the community had been burying their dead for over 100 years – 11 cemeteries in all.

Upon acquiring the property, TVA immediately relocated two cemeteries and, in 1970, relocated one other – an enslaved person cemetery – to Harper Cemetery, which is also on Gallatin Fossil Plant property.

Fast forward to 2019. Six of the eight remaining cemeteries were in areas to be affected by the Surface Impoundments Closure and Restoration project, which involves closing wet ash storage areas and creating a state-of-the-art dry ash landfill. Beginning in 2019, I helped the team understand what would be needed for the cemetery relocations and provided guidance throughout the project.

The community that existed here between the end of the Civil War and TVA’s land acquisition was primarily African American. Our research indicated they kept livestock and worked as laborers and in various trades, but other than that there was little historical documentation.

Unfortunately, despite extensive effort, we were unable to identify many living descendants who had any knowledge of this community or of the potential identities of any of the graves. Very few of the graves had legible headstones. Most were marked with either a simple fieldstone or two, or nothing at all. Death certificates were only found for about 46 graves, and those only indicated which cemetery people were buried in. So, we were unable to identify most of the individuals interred.

When TVA bought the property, some people relocated to Gallatin or other places in Sumner County, but many went further away – thus losing their connection with Odom’s Bend.

We felt strongly that the cemeteries deserved respectful treatment. Also, because the cemeteries are historic, they qualify as historic properties and are protected by the National Historic Preservation Act, triggering Section 106.

The regulations that implement Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act require agencies to follow a specific process whenever a prospective federal project encounters historic properties. The process includes consultation with the state historic preservation officer and others outside TVA who may have an interest.

I led the consultation effort and drafted the Memorandum of Agreement that TVA executed with the state historic preservation officer. This agreement outlined the process by which we:

  • Determined whether each cemetery was eligible for the National Historic Preservation Act
  • Mitigated the adverse effect of relocating the cemetery through analysis of the remains
  • Reburied the remains
  • Coordinated with the public and involved their input

We made new plat maps for each cemetery, performed a remote sensing survey to identify all potential graves, and completed extensive archival and genealogical research in an effort to identify the decedents and living relatives.

The team excavated all the cemeteries and carefully recovered all the remains and grave markers, analyzing the skeletal remains, textiles, artifacts and coffin/casket hardware. Finally, we reburied all the remains in a new cemetery: the Garden of Eternal Freedom, at Crestview.

The part of this project that relates most to TVA’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility goals was our work with members of the local community. We worked alongside Gallatin Mayor Paige Brown and Velma Brinkley, a community leader and retired schoolteacher in Gallatin with an interest in local history. Our project manager, Michael Clemmons, assembled a committee for TVA’s cemetery relocation project that included Mrs. Brinkley and other local residents.

We met in person with this committee each month for almost two years – and they were excellent. Together, we planned the layout of the new cemetery and planned the reinterment dedication ceremony.

The committee contacted folks who had lived in the Odom’s Bend community, including Aileen Walker, 104, and Dorothy Robb Staten, 87. These ladies shared their stories of growing up there.

The dedication ceremony on Oct. 28, 2023, included the whole committee, Mayor Brown, former state Rep. Mike McDonald and more than 40 community members. This community embraced the cemetery relocation project and repeatedly expressed their gratitude for the respectful way we carried it out and their satisfaction with the beautiful new cemetery we created. I am very proud to have been a part of this project.

A tombstone with the word Beloved inscribed on it