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Miami museum set to return over 100 remains from indigenous burial sites to Seminole Tribe

A photo of the poster for HistoryMiami's Tropical Dreams exhibit featuring a depiction of ancient indigenous people.
Photo by Joshua Ceballos
HistoryMiami museum's Tropical Dreams exhibit features artifacts from and depictions of Florida's ancient indigenous tribes. It does not include the burial remains or funerary artifacts claimed by the Seminole tribe outlined in a recent ProPublica investigation.

After more than 30 years, a major Miami museum is in the process of returning remains from Native Americans in Florida back to an indigenous tribe.

But while the partnership between the museum and one of Florida's largest tribes is a step in the right direction, the process of reclaiming ancestral remains has highlighted deep wounds and conflicts between Native people and Western archaeology.

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In 1990, Congress passed a law requiring museums, universities, and federal institutions to return Native American remains and funeral artifacts to their rightful owners. Many tribes are still waiting to get their ancestors back, despite the law.

“When your relatives are put to rest … it's never with the intention of them being excavated, stored on shelves for someone to cut up and research or put on display,” said Tina Osceola, Tribal Historic Preservation Office director for the Seminole Tribe of Florida. “It’s directly correlated to the health of our people.”

A recently published investigation by ProPublica in partnership with NBC News found that institutions around the U.S. still haven’t returned human remains and “funerary artifacts” dug up from burial grounds to the native tribes they belong to, as required by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

"When your relatives are put to rest … it's never with the intention of them being excavated, stored on shelves for someone to cut up and research or put on display."
Tina Osceola, Tribal Historic Preservation Office director for the Seminole Tribe of Florida

According to ProPublica, many of those institutions have “thwarted the repatriation process” by categorizing items in their collections as “culturally unidentifiable,” meaning the remains belong to a tribe that is unknown or no longer in existence.

"If you're not able to affiliate remains, you can kind of just keep them in perpetuity as it stands with the law," said Ash Ngu, a journalist for ProPublica who worked on the investigation.

One institution featured on ProPublica’s database is HistoryMiami, the repository for all archeological findings in Miami-Dade County.

Photo by Joshua Ceballos
While human remains and funeral items are kept locked away, HistoryMiami has ancient stone artifacts and tools from prehistoric indigenous tribes in Florida on display.

According to the list, HistoryMiami presently has remains and funerary artifacts from 132 individuals in its collection – the highest number of such items housed by an archeological institution taken from burial sites in Miami-Dade County. This includes fragments of bones, seashells and pottery shards from sites around southeast and southwest Florida.

Those remains are kept under lock and key in a private, climate-controlled area of the museum that's inaccessible by the public. WLRN was not allowed to see the remains.

Natalia Crujeiras, CEO of HistoryMiami, told WLRN that the museum has yet to return the items in its collection because for a long time, they didn’t know whom to give them to.

Under the language of the federal law, the funerary artifacts and human remains were qualified as "culturally unidentifiable," she said.

"There was no group that claimed responsibility for those remains at the time, and there was no contest to this finding, so we kept them under our protection,” Crujeiras said.

The two tribes the remains belong to, the Tequesta and the Calusa, are considered by historians and archeologists to be extinct – erased by violence and disease resulting from colonization.

"There was no group that claimed responsibility for those remains at the time, and there was no contest to this finding, so we kept them under our protection."
Natalia Crujeiras, CEO of HistoryMiami

But there’s contention about whether or not those tribes are connected with living groups.

While research by non-native academics holds that the Tequesta and Calusa are completely gone, the Seminole Tribe of Florida contends that they are the descendants of those ancient tribes of Florida.

“It's really upsetting that they still disassociate the Seminole Tribe of Florida from our ancestors. I don't think HistoryMiami or anyone else should have the power to tell the Seminole Tribe of Florida who their ancestors are. They have our ancestors. End of story,” Osceola said.

Crujeiras noted that it wasn’t until 2019 that the museum was made aware that the Seminole Tribe of Florida would be taking responsibility for all indigenous remains in Florida. Since then, museum staff said their discussions with the tribe have been going well, and they plan to repatriate the items soon after going through the federally required inventory process.

Photo by Joshua Ceballos
A plaque at HistoryMiami describing the Miami Circle, an archaeological site in modern-day Brickell where artifacts of the Tequesta tribe of Southeast Florida were found.

“We have to collaborate with the Seminole Tribe and we're fortunate that we have them as a resource. Some other places may not have such a good relationship or access to people like that,” said Adriana Millares, director of collections for HistoryMiami.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida concurred that talks with the museum have gone well. The two parties have a meeting in March to discuss the status of HistoryMiami’s official inventory of the remains, before they can hand them off to the tribe.

'They have to come out and make it right'

Ngu, the ProPublica reporter, told WLRN that once a tribe makes a claim to remains, it can often take several years to perform the official inventory because of the time it takes to research and catalog each item.

Once an inventory is done and reported to the federal government, the tribe will take the remains and put them to rest, as difficult as that will be to do a second time.

“For Seminoles, we don't have reburial practices and ceremonies because it was never intended,” Osceola explained.

Osceola said that the tribe is keeping their plans for the remains confidential to reduce the risk of them being looted again. As she put it, “our ancestors are still a commodity,” and their remains could still be stolen and sold off.

Other entities around the country also have remains taken from what is now Miami-Dade County, including the Florida Department of State and Harvard University, according to ProPublica. Florida Atlantic University at one point had 34 remains or funeral artifacts, but all of them have been made available for return to an indigenous tribe.

Juan Cancel, THPO assistant director for the Seminole Tribe, said that other institutions with indigenous remains need to make the effort to seek out tribes who might have a claim to those artifacts, rather than waiting for the tribes to come to them.

“This is not something that tribes caused or started. They decided to do this so they have to come out and make it right,” Cancel said.

HistoryMiami Museum.jpeg
Matias J. Ocner
Miami Herald
HistoryMiami Museum, on the Miami-Dade County Cultural Center plaza in downtown Miami.

Joshua Ceballos is WLRN's Local Government Accountability Reporter and a member of the investigations team. A born-and-raised Miami journalist, his stories focus on the intersection of local government, corruption, and the regular people of South Florida.