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THPO still on guard, but hopeful on repatriation efforts

Tina Osceola (Photo Beverly Bidney)

FORT MYERS — Tina Osceola spoke to members of the Southwest Florida Archaeological Society on March 15 at the IMAG History and Science Center in Fort Myers, where she described what repatriation of ancestors means to the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the work being done by the tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office.

“When we speak about ancestors, it is very purposeful,” said Osceola, THPO director. “We are defining ourselves and telling our own story. Tribal archeology is different because we don’t forget the human side of it. The emotional side of repatriation is the most important thing we do.”

THPO archaeologists dig holes on trust land before anything can be built. If human remains are found, they are left undisturbed and building cannot commence on the site. To date, THPO has dug more than 50,000 holes, which are all kept in a data base along with maps, artifacts and conversations with Elders.
Osceola was raised to believe the Calusas were her relatives and said they talk about and sing Calusa songs in their language.

“Archeology supports the story I was told my entire life,” she said. “The most important work we do is to correct the wrongs of the past and to put our ancestors back where they belong.”

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, D.C., has nearly 1,500 remains and funerary objects in its collection that Osceola and her team have been working to get back since 2019. NMNH says the remains are culturally unidentifiable, so they aren’t required to return them.

Osceola, THPO collections manager Domonique deBeaubien and THPO senior bioarchaeologist Samantha Wade have been working to reclaim those ancestors.

“I get to work with a team who knowingly are going to be beating their heads against a wall,” Osceola said. “One of the important things we do is the advancement of tribal sovereignty. Seminole traditions and culture are firmly planted in tribal sovereignty and has become a part of who we are. THPO is responsible for defining and advancing that concept.”

“It is a long hard road that we fight every day,” Wade said. “It’s a lot of getting our hands dirty and making sure people know we are still fighting this fight every day.”

deBeaubien is on the NAGPRA review committee (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act). She doesn’t understand why the remains are viewed as artifacts for research.

“Maybe when these people in power retire they will be replaced by people who have worked with tribes and understand Indigenous culture,” deBeaubien said.

The tribe’s “No More Stolen Ancestors” campaign, which started in 2019 to raise awareness of remains in museums and at universities across the nation, has been deemed successful.

“The Smithsonian learned that having a media campaign against them by the Seminole Tribe of Florida is something you don’t want,” deBeaubien said.

Osceola always wanted a tribal consultation consisting of tribal leadership meeting with Smithsonian leadership to deal with the issue of repatriation; that finally happened in December 2022 when the director of the NMNH, Kirk Johnson, attended a three-day meeting with the tribe.

“For the first time I feel hopeful,” Osceola said. “We visited Marco Island and had some hard discussions about funerary objects. We are actually sitting across the table from someone who wants to talk about them. I felt like we were heard and seen. Tribal consultation isn’t easy, but it’s about doing this together and righting the wrongs of the past.”

Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at