MARY KATHRYN CARPENTER/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Jim Barnett stands in front of one of the mounds at the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians.
MARY KATHRYN CARPENTER/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Jim Barnett stands in front of one of the mounds at the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians.

Director retires from Grand Village, MDAH

Published 12:07am Sunday, June 22, 2014

He would balk at being called the Grand Sun, but the long-time chief at the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians will step down at the end of the month.

Grand Village Director Jim Barnett will retire June 30, just nine days shy of 33 years at the Grand Village.

He started working at the Grand Village as what was then known as the site administrator in the summer of 1981, but within two months had been given the additional title of director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History’s Historic Property Division.

Since then, he’s run the historic property division from Natchez, where MDAH had two museum properties with staff — the Grand Village and Historic Jefferson College.

As historic properties director, it’s been Barnett’s duty to oversee a number of sites MDAH has acquired and ensure they are kept up in a way that ensures their archeological integrity.

Through arranging timber sales on some of the properties, Barnett has been able to set aside nearly $1 million for the maintenance of historic properties. He’s also helped generate funds for MDAH through hunting leases.

But the focus of his career has been making the history of Natchez’s native populations come alive for people who might not have had access to information about them before.

“Natchez is a wonderful place for people who are interested in history, but I didn’t see my mission as trying to do more archeology here and extending the archeological database,” he said.

“My goal was always to communicate what was here to the people, what I — and archeologists — knew about the past. There is a lot of information about the past, but it is not always written in a way that is accessible to those who are not fluent in the technical jargon.”

The highlight of that mission was the publication of “The Natchez Indians: A History to 1735,” in 2007, Barnett said.

“That represented my years of research and an effort to get this history down in a manner different than it had been presented in the past.”

Barnett followed that work in 2012 with the publication of “Mississippi’s American Indians” in 2012.

His life’s work wasn’t one Barnett could foresee when he started school. He got an undergraduate degree in art and played music professionally for a few years before taking a job at a bank.

After a few years working in the banking industry, Barnett decided he would return to school, and enrolled in a master’s program at the University of Arkansas, where he studied anthropology — including the Natchez Indians.

As a graduate assistant at the University of Arkansas, Barnett had two job offers, one a temporarily funded job at the Illinois State Museum, the other at the Grand Village. He took the job in Natchez, and Barnett said his job in banking probably played a role in that decision since his work would be administrative in nature.

But as an administrator, Barnett wasn’t just a number cruncher. He was able to get the Grand Village accredited by the American Association of Museums — now the American Alliance of Museums — in 1993. Museum accreditation is a peer-based validation of the museum’s operations and helps demonstrate the institution’s value to funding and policy-making institutions.

“That was a very long, difficult process, because we don’t have much staff, and the director and staff have to satisfy all of the requirements of the accrediting body,” Barnett said. “But because we did it, we are one of only 1,700 museums in the United States that has accreditation.”

During his time at the Grand Village, Barnett has focused on disseminating the knowledge already present, but he’s also overseen two possible archeological finds there.

One was the accidental discovery of a house site when the museum had to dig a drainage ditch through the property.

“For a long time, I thought we had found everything,” he said.

“The house site is still down there, waiting for excavation if that happens, but the trend these days is to leave it alone because excavation destroys the site just like a bulldozer would, you just do it with little tools.”

The other discovery was of two possible former mounds, now located under the ground surface due to soil erosion from higher ground filling in the area and ultimately topping the mounds.

The lost mounds were found using electronic readings of the ground under the surface.

“That was prompted primarily because with the advent of the Internet, there is now an availability of French colonial maps that we didn’t have access to, that before you would have had to go to Paris to see,” he said.

“With some of those French records, there was mention of two mounds that we didn’t know about here. With those electronic readings, they were able to locate two possible mounds (under the ground) that corresponded roughly with those records.”

Beyond being an anthropologist and a scholar, Barnett has been a good director to work under, Grand Village Historian Becky Anderson said.

“He is not just a boss, he is also a friend,” she said. “He has been with every one of us through the losses of family members, and he is very supportive. He is just a great boss all around.”

When Barnett leaves the office, the division of historic properties will be dissolved and its duties will be divided between three other arms of MDAH, Barnett said, and he is currently helping the different divisions sort through records and documents to ease the transition.

After his retirement, Barnett said he plans to write more.

“It will be nice, to be able to write during the day rather than just late evenings, early mornings and weekends,” he said.

But even in retirement, Barnett’s will continue working as an archeologist.

He’s currently systematically cataloging the location of every grave in the Watkins Street Cemetery, a volunteer effort he started in March 2012, and the MDAH has agreed to allow him to continue using the department’s equipment to catalog the gravesites until he is finished.

Barnett started the mapping work after reading that one of the organizations dedicated to the cemetery’s upkeep, the Worthy Women of Watkins Street, was going to pay a group $60,000 to do the same thing. Barnett told the Worthy Women he would do it for free.

“I am mapping it like an archeological site, and when I am finished I will have an alphabetical list where people can look and find their family members,” he said.

“I think it is important to map this cemetery. It is changing all the time, and graves are disappearing all the time.”

When Barnett retires, former Grand Village Director Ron Miller will step in part-time on an interim basis until the position is filled again, Anderson said.