OKEECHOBEE — The burial of 21 Seminole Indians took place Oct. 15, more than 150 years after their deaths.
Skulls from three children, two women and 16 men were placed in graves during a ceremony at an undisclosed location near the flat and vast Okeechobee Battlefield.
Their stories included a warrior decapitated on the battlefield of the Dade Massacre (1835), two warriors killed at the Battle of Okeechobee (1837) and one warrior shot to death at St. Joseph Plantation, 30 miles from St. Augustine (1836), reportedly killed by U.S. Army Capt. Justin Dimick, who was later promoted to brigadier general.
The details behind the other 12 male skulls are unknown, lost to history. Like the others, they were “collected” in Florida during the years around the “Seminole War,” as Tribal member and Chief Justice of Tribal Court Willie Johns calls it.
“One big long war, from 1817 to 1858,” Johns said. “The U.S. likes to make it three separate wars, but to us it was just one. There was no beginning, no ending; it just kept going on.”
Johns carried a cardboard box containing several skulls that were carefully wrapped in white burial cloth by the Seminole Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) staff in Philadelphia several days before.
He walked across grass poking from the dark black Lake Okeechobee watershed muck and set the box next to a deep hole dug earlier by a backhoe from Buxton & Bass Okeechobee Funeral Home. One by one, THPO staff carried 10 more boxes to the site.
THPO collections manager Kate Macuen lowered herself into a vault donated by the funeral home. Assisted by Johns and THPO bioarchaeologist Domonique deBeaubien, she laid each cloth-wrapped skull along the bottom of the vault.
Although documentation was necessary, photographs were not allowed to be taken of the open vault.
“This is very serious to the Seminole Tribe. These are our relatives. It is very sad that it took this long to bring them back home,” said Johns, who has been proactive in matters both local and national regarding the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Passed in 1990, NAGPRA provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return Native American cultural items – including human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects or objects of cultural patrimony – to lineal descendants, culturally affiliated Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations.
While exact figures are difficult to determine, NAGPRA’s website estimates more than 50,000 human remains and more than 140,000 objects have been repatriated since the law went into effect.
Charles Coleman, one of the nation’s first Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, observed the repatriation services while representing Thlopthlocco (Creek) Tribal Town of Okemah, Oklahoma. Retired from the military and as a teacher, Coleman rejoined his tribal government to “work on getting the remains back. They are all over the place and sometimes they have been in a box in some basement for many, many years,” he said. “Tribes need to support one another to get them out of the box and back in the ground where they belong.
“It’s not easy. They don’t always want to give them up. I’m proud of the Seminoles. It is really a privilege for me to be here to observe this one. It is important to Tribes to keep working on these repatriations.”
The journey of the Seminole skulls included being unceremoniously stored in plastic bags and bubble wrap in a university basement. They were among skulls taken legally and illegally, and with and without permission, from battlefields and burial sites across America and other parts of the world by a legion of skull robbers, medics and funerary fanatics eager to make money or gain praise from Dr. Samuel George Morton, a Philadelphia physician who believed that cranial capacity determined intelligence. He combined data from skull measurements with analysis of known principles of anthropology to create “evidence” for racial stereotypes and justification for a racial hierarchy that put Caucasians on the top rung and Africans on the bottom. Native Americans were in the middle.
Where he described the Caucasian as “distinguished by the facility with which it attains the highest intellectual endowments,” Native Americans were described as “averse to cultivation and slow in acquiring knowledge; restless, revengeful and fond of war; and wholly destitute of maritime adventure.”
In fact, Morton’s “systematic justification” for the separation of races, gave racists of the era powerful scientific ammunition to support both slavery and forced American Indian removals.
Morton’s theories have been debunked several times since he died in 1851. A 2014 study of Morton’s data by University of Pennsylvania philosophy professor Michael Weisberg concluded “there is prima facie evidence of racial bias in Morton’s … measurements,” further calling Morton’s work “a cautionary example of racial bias in the science of human differences.”
After Morton’s death, the Academy of Natural Sciences, also in Philadelphia, purchased Morton’s collection of 967 skulls from his wife and in 1966 loaned and later donated the collection, which had nearly doubled since 1852, to the university, where it exists to this day, only partially on display.
In 2014, the Seminole Tribe of Florida was contacted by Dr. Pamela Geller, a University of Miami Department of Anthropology assistant professor, who reported that in the course of her graduate research, she discovered the Morton collection contained Seminole skulls. The Seminole THPO immediately began the laborious process to have the Seminole skulls returned to the Tribe for burial. The application included 11 letters of support from cultural-affiliated Tribes, including the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.
It took a year.
“It is like that in a lot of university museums,” Macuen said. “By law they have to work with the Tribes to return this material. I think a lot of people are trying to make the right decisions, but they also have a different mindset and feel very possessive about their collections.
“We started an official conversation with the museum, requesting their whole inventory. It took a year to get all the documents, which is one of the great frustrations. They already had it all and they dragged their feet. In most cases you call a museum and ask for that and they give it to you that day, that week; never something that would take a year.”
Stacey Espenlaub, NAGPRA coordinator at University of Pennsylvania, said she believed the two entities worked well together.
“We finally came to a common ground and it worked well,” she said.
Espenlaub reported that a full inventory of the university’s skull collection was mailed to THPOs, including the Seminole THPO in 2001. However, the Seminole THPO office was not established until 2002; it was not until 2006 that a Historic Preservation Plan was established and the duties of the State Historic Preservation Officer were shifted to the Tribe’s Historic Preservation Officer.
Espenlaub also indicated that the inventories are posted on the Federal Register.
Eventually, in mid-October, a team from the Seminole THPO office and Johns flew to Philadelphia to accept the skulls, which were stored in plastic bags with bubble wrap. The team spent an entire day unwrapping the skulls and repacking them according to the strict Seminole THPO carrying standards, said Macuen, who credits Johns and Seminole medicine man Bobby Henry for their guidance.
“It made it a whole lot better when you know you are bringing them home and it is the right thing to do,” Macuen said.
Because grave robbers still exist, the location of the burial site is not being released, though there are plans to erect a monument or sign nearby.
During the ceremony, Johns gave a eulogy to a small crowd gathered around the site.
“Normally in our funerals we do a handshake, but these guys here have been in heaven a long time,” he said. “We are just bringing their remains back where they belong. I always thought, what if they ask me to say something, what would I say? I would say, ‘Welcome home, welcome home. And, oh, by the way, did you hear? We won! Your people are still here in Florida. And they are doing well … So welcome home, rest in peace forever and ever more. You are here back in your beloved homeland.’ Wildcat couldn’t say that. You remember: he was the one who kept saying, ‘I was made of this land and I am going to die here.’ But he never did. These guys here made the trip, the big circle. And their circle is over today. So, on behalf of the Seminole Warrior Society and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, I want to thank everybody, especially the THPO department for diligently going after this because when we found out they were Seminoles, our hearts just kind of went that way; we had to do this. So I guess we can all leave in peace knowing that we all did our part.”
Each person shoveled a piece of earth and tossed it over the open grave.
As the backhoe pushed the small hill of sand atop the closed vault, the skulls of the 21 Seminoles, which had rested on shelves and boxes for more than 160 years, were finally at rest in peace.
“There are a lot more out there in boxes,” Johns said. “I hope we can get them all.”