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Tribe’s repatriation efforts extend beyond Smithsonian

BIG CYPRESS — The Seminole Tribe’s ongoing goal to recover ancestral remains and funerary objects from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has gotten a lot of focus in recent years. It’s for good reason – the NMNH has a vast collection of about 1,500 Seminole ancestors and tens of thousands of archaeological artifacts.

While the effort has been described as frustrating, tedious and slow, it has also yielded results. In late 2020 the tribe’s eight-member repatriation committee, part of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO), were successful in pushing the NMNH to revise its policy regarding human remains and other items. The updated policy includes provisions to repatriate that which was previously identified as “culturally unidentifiable,” considered a significant breakthrough.

Domonique deBeaubien, THPO collections manager and member of the repatriation committee, said as important as the NMNH effort is, there’s other outreach consistently in progress, too. “So far in just this calendar year I’ve worked with at least 28 federal agencies on NAGPRA repatriation-related consultations,” she said.

Seminole Tribe repatriation committee members Tina Osceola, left, and Domonique deBeaubien, went to Washington, D.C., in late 2020 to push for changes in the National Museum of Natural History’s repatriation policy. (File photo)

NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, was put in place in 1990 to protect the cultural and biological remains of Native Americans and their ancestors. While the federal law applies to museums, universities, the National Park Service and other institutions, it does not apply to the NMNH or other Smithsonian entities which are covered by a separate repatriation law. Every other federal agency or landowner falls under NAGPRA, and there are also state-level repatriation laws in play.

“On the state side, we’ve had 15 inadvertent discoveries throughout the state of Florida that we’ve consulted on,” deBeaubien said. “This would include projects that come in from archaeological companies, developers … where we have to consult quite rapidly and figure out how to protect remains that have been disturbed during construction.”

For example, a contractor that is having a road built or a developer in work on a housing community might find remains. Those cases are a big percentage of the tribe’s repatriation caseload, deBeaubien said, although such incidents tend to be resolved more quickly. The 15 inadvertent discoveries are relatively recent ones and don’t include those from previous years that “roll over,” she said, making it a time consuming and complex process.

“Some agencies we’ll talk to once, and they’ll disappear forever. Other’s I talk to every single week or multiple times per week and probably will continue to do so for the next five to 10 years or more,” deBeaubien said.

When remains or funerary objects are released to the tribe, an intentional process is followed. Legal paperwork is completed and there are approvals that come from senior tribal leadership. Travel arrangements are made that are “very secure and very private,” deBeaubien said. The 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.

For more information, go to stofthpo.com. On social media, follow NoMoreStolenAncestors 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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