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Storm unearths ancestral remains in Martin County

Beach erosion from Hurricane Nicole unearthed the remains of six skulls and smaller bones on Chastain Beach, located on Hutchinson Island South in Martin County. The remains were discovered by beachgoers Nov. 10 and reported to law enforcement.

Hurricane Nicole made landfall as a Category 1 storm south of Vero Beach early Nov. 10 with strong winds that churned up the sand. Hutchinson Island South is a barrier island about 50 miles north of West Palm Beach.

Members of the Martin County Sheriff’s Office arrived at the scene with crime scene technicians and determined the remains were possibly hundreds of years old and likely Native American. Officials said they were already aware of the area because remains had been found there before, most recently after Hurricane Dorian in 2019 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Once it was determined the remains were archaeological in nature, officials said they began to excavate for safekeeping. The Martin County Sheriff’s Office also published a post to its social media account with photos of the scene, and upon request, provided local news outlets with additional photos of the remains.

The activity got the attention of the Seminole Tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO).

“It is not the position of THPO that ancestors be removed without tribal notification and consultation,” a Nov. 10 THPO statement said. “THPO will be working closely with the Martin County Sheriff’s Office to ensure they are made aware of our practices, as well as the law governing the disturbance of our ancestors’ burials.”

Tina Osceola, THPO director, told the Seminole Tribune that it was clear the remains are those of the Seminole Tribe’s ancestors.

“It was irresponsible of the Martin County Sheriff’s Office to step outside the scope of their role as law enforcement officers and into the shoes of the state of Florida’s Bureau of Archaeological Resources,” Osceola said Nov. 17. “They are not trained to make those determinations.”

Osceola cited Florida statute 872, which requires law enforcement to contact the state’s Bureau of Archaeological Resources after a discovery is determined to be archaeological in nature. The state is then to notify the applicable consulting tribes of the finding.

THPO said it learned of the discovery through a news report by NBC affiliate WPTV, which published a story with a photo of a human skull and other skeletal remains. The tribe’s public information officer and representatives of the Seminole Police Department assisted THPO by contacting local news outlets and the Martin County Sheriff’s Office to request photos be removed or blurred out.

Osceola said some news outlets agreed to the request, while others did not. She said the Martin County Sheriff’s Office later acknowledged that it was irresponsible to post the photo on its social media platform, and subsequently removed it.

THPO said it would work to create training materials for local law enforcement agencies and the news media so that a similar situation doesn’t happen again.

“Think of your own families or anyone’s families,” Juan Cancel, THPO assistant director, said to ABC affiliate WPBF News Nov. 10. “We want anyone from our past that has passed on treated with the same level of respect as anyone else.”

Cancel told the Seminole Tribune Nov. 17 that the remains will eventually be taken to the state’s Bureau of Archeological Research, who will then consult with the tribe about their repatriation and reburial.

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