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'You're Possessing Our History': Seminole Tribe Could Get Back Remains Of Ancestors Taken By Smithsonian

A historic photo of Seminole Indians , taken between 1898 and 1931.
Detroit Publishing Company
Public Domain
A historic photo of Seminole Indians , taken between 1898 and 1931.

After the Seminole Tribe of Florida spent years pushing the National Museum of Natural History to return human remains to the tribal nation, the museum finally changed its official policy on repatriations.

Tina Osceola takes a few deep breaths, preparing herself emotionally, before she walks into the National Museum of Natural History's collections in Washington. The building is the size of a football field and three stories high, holding millions of objects. In past visits, Osceola has found bones and other remains of her ancestors inside.

“As a Seminole woman, this is one of the most tragic events that is ongoing to our people,” she said. “I get challenged all the time about, 'Oh my God, that was so long ago, can't you guys get over it?' Are you kidding me? You know, get over it. It's still happening. Our people are still being victimized.”

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Osceola is a member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida who lives just outside of Naples. For years she has participated in a tribal committee that has pushed the museum to give back the remains of what they estimate could be more than 1,000 tribal members.

In October, the effort had a breakthrough. The museum issued a new policy that for the first time outlines the steps that would ultimately start what’s called the repatriation process, or bringing the native peoples back to their tribal nations.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida was at the forefront of pushing for the policy change, museum officials say.

All federally recognized tribal nations, from Alaska to the Mexican border, will be able to participate in the new process, potentially opening the doors for a historic homecoming for — Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

For Osceola, the fact that her fellow tribal members are still being held in vaults in the nation’s capital in 2020 only attests to the fact that Native Americans are still living in colonial times.

“We have one ancestor up there who we know his name, we know where he was found. We know his relatives today. And the museum red tape has run them around in circles. They know who he is. They know who he's related to. And guess what? He's still up there,” she said. “You're possessing our soul. You're possessing our history. You're possessing our lineage. For Native people, once a human being dies, that's not it. That's not the end of their imprint.”

Domonique deBeaubien is an archaeologist who works with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. She’s been trying to get the National Museum of Natural History to give back remains of Seminole Tribe of Florida members for a decade, to no avail. The policy change issued by the museum is “quite significant” to those efforts, she said.

“This is a big kind of policy victory, but there's still a ton of work left to be done,” deBeaubien said. “They've never implemented this policy before, so we’re hoping to be the test case.”

The tribe will have to present evidence for why the Seminole Tribe of Florida — and not some other tribe — should be able to lay claim to the remains. That can include geographic locations, artifact analysis, and for the first time, oral histories.

Federal law says the remains are "culturally unaffiliated,” or not connected to an existing tribe that's recognized by the federal government. That designation is outdated, says deBeaubien, and it could complicate the whole process.

“Just because we have these modern boundaries and modern political affiliations, it doesn't mean that these are just abandoned people that nobody has concerns for. So it's definitely a contested language that we're kind of forced to work within that framework of,” she said.

Florida’s unique Native American history plays a role in how complicated it could become.

For remains and artifacts that originated in Florida, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and the Muskogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma could also have legitimate claims. Both tribes were forcibly removed to Oklahoma from the peninsula in the 1800s, during the Trail of Tears.

Many Seminole stayed behind and fought multiple wars against the U.S. government, making them the only Native American group that was never conquered by the Army. The Seminole Tribe of Florida was recognized by the federal government in 1957.

The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida had always considered themselves apart from the Seminole, although the federal government grouped the two together for years. In 1962, the Miccosukee won their own recognition by the federal government, meaning they could also have legitimate claims to remains found in Florida — if the tribe wishes to pursue them.

“Once we come to actually facilitate bringing these ancestors home, then those conversations are going to have to be had internally between tribes,” said Paul Backhouse, an archaeologist and the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Tribal historic preservation officer. “A lot of those differences melt away when it comes down to the cultural imperative to bring the ancestors home and to do the right thing. So I anticipate strong cooperation between tribes in making this happen.”

Once the remains finally get returned, Backhouse says tribal leaders will have to figure out a respectful way to rebury them. It’s a problem for which an existing tradition doesn’t exist.

“There is never an idea to put these remains on display. That's abhorrent,” Backhouse said. “That's an artifact of colonialism that would never happen on the reservation.

Bill Billeck is the head of the repatriation office at the National Museum of Natural History. He says the museum’s policy change is part of a historic shift that is happening from within the field of anthropology, parallel to increased awareness on indigenous issues that are happening in popular culture.

“New anthropologists are very much like — ’this is the way that the discipline should be working. It should be working with indigenous communities closely,'” he said.

Realistically, Billeck says it could still take many years to work through the existing objects and human remains that might ultimately get repatriated.

“You have to go back to the field notes, the early catalog records and see what they say,” he said.

Billeck says that he is aware many might see him and his office as the bad guys in the story. The Smithsonian Institute, which runs the National Museum of Natural History, has been around since the mid-1800s. Many of the human remains and items were taken more than 100 years ago.

But the museum is bound by a federal law, called the The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, passed in 1990, says Billeck.

The purpose is to make sure his institutions like the National Museum of Natural History give the remains to the right people.

“I recognize that I represent the Smithsonian. To many people, the Smithsonian did these things and people are upset,” he said. “But I think more often the reaction I get is — people are so grateful that the museum is doing these new things, that we're returning these things, that we're making new relationships possible, that we've thrown open the collections for people to come to see — we've made them available.”

Tribal member Osceola says she hopes the newly re-sparked conversation about repatriation will help some people think critically about the historic wrongs that have been committed against Native Americans.

When she got the news of the museum’s policy change, she almost felt happy. And then, that fleeting feeling turned to something more critical.

“It's not something that I feel like we should even thank them for, to be honest,” she said. “This policy is just writing on a piece of paper. What is that really worth to a tribe when the United States hasn't even kept one treaty with a tribe? Is it gonna mirror what we’re used to? Or are we going to actually have something real come out of this?”

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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