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‘Historic victory for Indigenous rights’ as NMNH revises repatriation policy

Seminole Tribe repatriation committee members Tina Osceola, left, and Domonique deBeaubien, went to Washington, D.C. in February to push for changes in the National Museum of Natural History’s repatriation policy. (Courtesy photo)

It appears the resolve, advocacy and pressure has yielded results.
The Seminole Tribe’s repatriation committee announced Oct. 21 that the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) revised its repatriation policy regarding human remains and other items.

The committee, part of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO), has been working for years to influence the NMNH to change its dated policy.

On Oct. 21 the committee announced that the NMNH had done just that.

THPO officials have received a revised repatriation policy that includes provisions to repatriate human remains and funerary objects back to affiliated tribes that the NMNH has previously identified as “culturally unidentifiable.”

Officials said the objects, which the NMNH obtained through decades of donations and acquisitions, include approximately 1,500 Seminole ancestors exhumed from dozens of burial sites across Florida, as well as tens of thousands of archaeological artifacts like potsherds, arrowheads, bone tools and wooden effigies.

“Until now, there has been no legal mechanism to return those ancestors to their homelands. That transition can now begin,” Domonique deBeaubien, collections manager and chair of the committee, said in the announcement.

deBeaubien said the goal for the tribe and the committee has always been to push NMNH to revise its policy to include all Native ancestral remains in its collection, and not just those that have been identified by the museum.

Two successful resolutions spearheaded by THPO and sponsored by the United South & Eastern Tribes (USET) and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) encouraged the NMNH to adopt a repatriation policy that gives equal weight to tribal knowledge and oral histories, and create a process that would allow all ancestors to be repatriated.

“The eventual enactment of this policy is a historic victory for Indigenous rights and an encouraging sign that the National Museum of Natural History recognizes the importance of returning ancestors to finally rest,” Paul Backhouse, senior director of the Tribe’s Heritage and Environment Resources Office (HERO), said in a statement.

Committee member Tina Osceola, who is also a Seminole Tribal Court associate justice, said she was pleased with the NMNH’s decision, but that there’s still more to accomplish.

“The revised policy has been a long time coming and I feel generations overdue,” Osceola said in a statement. “As our tribe continues to seek the return of our stolen ancestors, we will continue to work on behalf of Indian Country to pass better laws that can help to return more ancestors, funerary, sacred and objects of cultural patrimony.”

Osceola said her hope was that many in the U.S. and around the world would begin to shift from the belief that Native culture and people are only valuable when owned, displayed or studied.

“There is still much work left to do,” she said.

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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