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THPO’s deBeaubien named to NAGPRA committee

The Seminole Tribe’s efforts to repatriate its ancestors got a boost Nov. 22 when Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) collections manager Domonique deBeaubien was named to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act’s (NAGPRA) federal advisory review committee for a four-year term.

The committee is charged with monitoring and reviewing the implementation of NAGPRA – a 1990 federal law that passed after tribes and their supporters discovered that museums, universities and collectors held hundreds of thousands of remains and objects from Native American burial sites. The law requires federally funded institutions to document remains and return them to tribes.

deBeaubien was nominated for the committee by the tribe and then appointed by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo). deBeaubien has been working on NAGPRA issues for 11 years, often alongside THPO director Tina Osceola.

Domonique deBeaubien

“One of the first things we’ll do is work on the revisions of the (NAGPRA) regulations,” deBeaubien said. “It’s been in a rewrite and consultation process for a number of years. Now there will be some formal recommendations on rules changes and how to proceed moving forward.”

deBeaubien said the revisions are meant to make the NAGPRA process more streamlined and effective for tribes, and also to hold institutions more accountable.

“We’re trying to get the older holding institutions back into the process,” she said. “The enforcement piece has been lacking for a long time.”

There have been positive developments for the tribe in recent years. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), which has a vast collection of about 1,500 Seminole ancestors and tens of thousands of archaeological artifacts, revised its NAGPRA policy in late 2020 after pressure from the tribe. NMNH updated its provision to repatriate that which was previously identified as “culturally unidentifiable.” It was considered a significant breakthrough, as NAGPRA technically does not apply to NMNH, but is covered by a separate repatriation law.

In addition to the NMNH, deBeaubien said there are several academic institutions in Florida that are also holders of collections, including Florida State University, the University of Florida, Florida Atlantic University and the University of South Florida. Outside the state, she’s also worked with the University of Alabama and the University of West Georgia.

“The southeast (U.S.) is probably one of the largest areas that has the most work to do,” deBeaubien said. “One of the problems is that we don’t even have accurate numbers.”

She said the tribe is in the process of developing a “repatriation portal” to track cohesive numbers using geographic information system (GIS) technology to help piece it together.

“That’s something we’ve been developing so we can understand the scope,” deBeaubien said.

She said cases come to the tribe in several ways, including through inadvertent discoveries across Florida – remains or objects that arise from work done by archaeological companies and commercial developers, or that are uncovered after severe storms.

When remains or funerary objects are released to the tribe, a strict process is followed. Legal paperwork is completed and there are approvals that come from senior tribal leadership. Secure and private travel arrangements are made and the tribe’s repatriation committee consults with cultural advisers on a location for reburial as close to an original site as possible. If an area has been bulldozed or it has a development on it, often a state or federal park is used. Nothing is ever collected or put on display, and funerary objects are buried together with the respective ancestor.

deBeaubien said NAGPRA has received more attention lately, in part because Haaland is at the helm at the Department of Interior.

“The door is open instead of us constantly banging on it,” she said. “Hopefully we’ll have more cases to close out and more ancestors to put to rest over the next couple of years.”

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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