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‘Culturally unidentifiable’ no more: A closer look at repatriation policy change

The Seminole Tribe announced Oct. 21 that the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) revised its repatriation policy regarding human remains and funerary objects.

The change is a big deal and an effort that took many years and countless hours of work by tribal members and Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) employees – which includes the repatriation committee.

The committee consists of Domonique deBeaubien, Tina Osceola, Paul Backhouse, Anne Mullins, Bradley Mueller, Kate Macuen, Willie Johns, Erica Ashton and Juan Cancel. deBeaubien is committee chair.

Mr. Johns, who devoted years of service to repatriation, passed away Oct. 27, 2020.

The Seminole Tribune asked deBeaubien, collections manager and chair of the committee, to explain some of the terms and aspects of the new policy. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

In addition to human remains, funerary objects and objects of cultural patrimony are part of the new policy. What are those exactly?

deBeaubien: Funerary objects are objects that were intentionally left or made for people when they died, and they were placed with that person during burial.

Objects of cultural patrimony are essentially objects so important to a tribe, that it isn’t owned by an individual, but by the tribe as a whole. Sometimes these objects were taken by treasure hunters or sold by someone who didn’t have the authority to sell them. They are included as objects that may be repatriated since they are often considered very sacred.

A big part of the controversy was the Smithsonian’s “culturally unidentifiable” designation – especially as it applied to the ancient people of Florida. Can you explain?

deBeaubien: Most repatriation laws (National Museum of the American Indian Act/NMAI and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act/NAGPRA) rely on what is called ‘cultural affiliation’ in order to designate to whom remains are repatriated. This term means that there is a clear connection between the human remains and a modern, federally recognized Native American tribe.

Legally, this connection can be made by providing certain lines of evidence including geographical, kinship, biological, archaeological, anthropological, linguistic, oral-traditional and historical. ‘Culturally unidentifiable’ is where things get complicated. This is when an institution has human remains, but they cannot, or sometimes will not, make a connection between the remains and a modern day Native American tribe.

Sometimes a museum will list remains as culturally unidentifiable if they’ve lost all provenience information from the remains and don’t know where they came from. It sounds nightmarish that you could have the possession of someone’s remains and not have kept track of where you took them from, but this is so common that’s partially why the law is written the way it is. It was normal practice in the 19th and early 20th centuries for major museums to send treasure hunters to loot mounds. All they cared about was collecting treasure and remains and they took very few notes.

This was particularly bothersome for the Seminole Tribe?

deBeaubien: It has become even more loaded over the past few years as museums have been able to dictate to tribes who they can and cannot identify. In this case, there was a major disagreement between the Seminole Tribe and NMNH over whether or not the remains were actually unidentifiable.

The NMNH has a significant amount of information about where the remains in question were taken from, and all of the remains we have been pursuing came from the state of Florida. The Seminole Tribe feel that all of the ancient tribes of Florida are their ancestors, and the modern day tribe is a mixture of Creek descendant peoples as well as ancient tribes like Calusa and Tequesta that were absorbed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The NMNH argued that all of the ancient tribes had been wiped out before the ‘Seminoles’ came into existence, and were therefore not related to the remains in question. This point of view has been proven archaeologically, historically and through oral tradition to be completely false.

Despite our best efforts, nearly all of the Florida remains had been labeled as culturally unidentifiable, and up until [Oct. 21], the NMNH did not repatriate remains with this identification. They would only return remains they believed to be ‘culturally affiliated,’ and anything with an ‘unidentifiable’ designation had to be retained by the museum.

What happens now?

deBeaubien: The new policy put out by the NMNH now allows tribes to claim remains that have been labeled ‘culturally unidentifiable.’ It allows tribes to use aboriginal land claims to establish a reasonable connection to ‘unidentifiable’ remains.

In the 1960s the Indian Claims Commission determined the scope of each tribe’s aboriginal lands before the process of Indian Removal forced tribes off their homelands. The ICC determined that the Seminole Tribe of Florida had aboriginal land claims to the entire state of Florida.

Under the new NMNH policy, the S.T.O.F. will be able to claim any remains that were taken from the state of Florida.

What would a return entail?

deBeaubien: We do not house or accept human remains at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum or THPO. This would involve a coordinated effort with tribal leadership and elders to choose an appropriate location for reburial. All of the details would be worked out in advance, and the remains would be directly transferred to that location for a respectful burial.

For more information, go to stofthpo.com and follow #NoMoreStolenAncesetors on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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