Each weekend, Robert DeBord pulls his hair into a ponytail, straps on a gun and walks along the Tennessee River to protect his heritage.
A Cherokee, he is among a group of men and women of Indian ancestry deputized by the Hamilton County sheriff to stop looting of Indian graves.Members of the all-volunteer Native American Reserve Force patrol about 600 acres of Chattanooga's Moccasin Bend, the site of some of the worst destruction of Indian graves in the state.
"There's still so much left in the ground," said DeBord, a 42-year-old mechanic. "We're going to make sure it stays here."
The unique patrols seem to have worked. The sheriff's office says looting and vandalism at the site have been nearly eliminated.
Before the patrols, Moccasin Bend had become a symbol of neglect. Professional collectors and amateur enthusiasts had taken shovels to the hundreds of mainly Cherokee and Creek graves, searching for pottery, pipes, knives and other items that can be sold for thousands of dollars.
"It looked like someone had taken grenades and blown holes into the ground," said Harley Grant, an Eastern Band Cherokee and former member of the state Commission on Indian Affairs. "It's mind-numbing that someone would go in as a Sunday outing to loot Native American graves."
Artifacts 10,000 years old have been found on the property, along with campgrounds where Spanish explorers and Indians had contact in the 16th century. Civil War buffs also comb the park for rifle shells and other battle relics.
Tennessee passed a law in 1986 making disturbing an Indian grave a felony punishable by up to six years in prison and a $3,000 fine. Still, the looting continued.
Angered by the continuing desecration, members of the Chattanooga InterTribal Association decided to protect the area themselves.
Reservist Gary Williams, 44, said he's proud to volunteer, even though the shifts can be tiring and lonely.