WASHINGTON — The Seminole Tribe of Florida is fighting with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) for the repatriation of remains of about 1,500 individuals and tens of thousands of artifacts. The battle isn’t new; the Tribal Historic Preservation Office has been trying to get the items back for more than seven years.
“It’s a shocking situation,” said Paul Backhouse, THPO officer and director of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. “They don’t want to give them back; they want to tell the Tribe’s story.”
The NMNH says the items, which range from thousands of years old to the 20th century, are culturally unidentifiable. Since there is no written record of the Tribe’s existence from that time, the Smithsonian claims there is not enough evidence to say they belong to the Seminole Tribe.
Members of THPO, the Tribe and the NMNH staff met March 5 to discuss repatriation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), during the United South and Eastern Tribes’ Impact Week in Washington, D.C.
In October 2018, USET passed a resolution that called for the NMNH to revise its policies on repatriation to include provisions for the repatriation of culturally unidentifiable human remains and to adapt the policy to that of the NMAI, which requires repatriation of Native American ancestors to modern day Tribal Nations. Included in the resolution was language that addresses the specific issue the Seminoles have encountered including its “relationship to the ancestral, historic or aboriginal territories from where the human remains were collected.”
Tina Osceola and THPO staff members Domonique deBeaubien, Anne Mullins, Quenton Cypress and Juan Cancel attended the NMNH meeting and reported on it to USET’s Culture and Heritage Committee on March 6.
Also representing the Tribe at the NMNH meeting were Brighton Councilman Andrew J. Bowers Jr., Executive Director of Operations Andrew Jordan Bowers and Backhouse.
The Smithsonian uses published academic reports to verify claims and it doesn’t give the same weight to oral histories. Thus, the Tribe’s group reported the meeting did not go well. According to Osceola, NMNH repatriation office program manager Bill Billeck and Dorothy Lippert, case officer, called the funerary artifacts a “collection” and “specimens.”
“It was a hard meeting to sit through,” said Osceola, who was formerly a director of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, board member of the Smithsonian Institution’s NMAI and is currently Seminole Tribal Court associate judge. “How is their research contributing to humanity? How do they weigh their research with the harm it is doing to the Seminole people?”
Smithsonian policies were and still are influenced by William Sturtevant, an anthropologist who did field work for 18 months in Florida in the 1960s, became the Smithsonian’s authority on the Tribe and wrote the Smithsonian’s Handbook of North American Indians. The Smithsonian claims the state was completely devoid of all Indigenous people in Florida during the eras the artifacts are from.
“They view the Tribe’s movement into Florida as a singular event with Creek peoples descending into an empty state over a short period of time, rather than a process that started thousands of years ago when Creek descendants mixed with existing indigenous people to form what is now the Seminole Tribe of Florida,” deBeaubien wrote in a statement to the Tribune. “By viewing the Seminoles as completely separate from their indigenous ancestors, the Tribe legally has no claim to them under current Smithsonian policy.”
“This disallows a claim by anyone,” Osceola said. “They define us all as Creek even though not all of us are.”
THPO brought NMNH ten years of archaeological research, including 10,000 shovel tests taken on Seminole land to bolster its claim and prove continuous occupation of the Tribe’s ancestral lands. Shovel tests are used to determine if there are cultural remains beneath the surface.
“We came to them from a level playing field, with the same scientific information, but they wouldn’t even look at it,” Osceola said. “They said they spoke to Florida archeologists and made their determination. They never came down to research with us.”
During the meeting at NMAI, Backhouse suggested the NMNH help the Seminoles be the champions for all tribes.
“As a sovereign entity, the Seminole Tribe of Florida is asking for their ancestors back,” he said.
In February, Tribal Council authorized THPO to pursue the repatriation.
“The repatriation has to do with regulations that apply to all tribes, but they could use modifications. I’m not sure they [Smithsonian officials] are willing to do that; it will probably take a lot more conversations to convince people,” Councilman Bowers said. “They want one set of rules to apply to everybody but I’m not sure one set can fit all tribes. We are trying to get them to cooperate. Council directed them to return them.”
Osceola hopes THPO and the Tribe will develop a strategy to use national Native and professional organizations to spread awareness and garner support to convince NMNH to adopt humane policies for repatriation.
“The Council is behind us. They have unleashed THPO,” Osceola said. “But we will need a partnership with other tribes to help. We are all fighting the same battle. There isn’t a single tribe not affected by this.”
“This is a human rights issue, not academic policy,” said deBeaubien. “They need to be reminded of that, it isn’t ethical without it.”
Osceola pointed out a significant difference between western and Native American cultures.
“The way our ancestors are treated affects us directly. Western civilization doesn’t have that,” she said. “For Indigenous communities, it’s a lot more than that. They are with us today; we are responsible for them. This is the battlefield. These wars are real too, these wars matter.”
In a statement sent to the Tribune, NMNH’s Billeck wrote the NMNH summarizes all the available information on the origins of the items in question, assesses cultural affiliation and evaluates whether the items fall in the repatriation categories. Under the NMAI Act of 1989, which governs repatriation of cultural items by the Smithsonian Institution, NMNH is required to use the best available scientific and historical information to make assessments based on the preponderance of the evidence.
“This effort to determine the cultural affiliation and if objects are in repatriation categories may take into consideration any available information, including geographical, kinship, biological, archaeological, anthropological, linguistic, oral traditional, historical, or any other relevant information or expert opinion. Consultation and information on cultural affiliation from Native American communities is an important part of the evaluation process. We have asked for any information that the Seminole Tribe can provide,” Billeck wrote.