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Tribes seek return of Moundville items from University of Alabama

One of the platform mounds at Moundville Archaeological Park. (Image via Moundville Archaeological Park Facebook)

The Seminole Tribe is one of seven tribes that are seeking the return of almost 5,900 human remains and artifacts at the Moundville site in west-central Alabama near Tuscaloosa. The remains and artifacts are in the possession of the University of Alabama.

The Moundville site (which now includes the Moundville Archaeological Park) was considered a significant area of Native American culture from about 1020 to 1650. Archaeologists have been studying artifacts at Moundville for more than 100 years. The park, operated by the University of Alabama, opened in 1939 where researchers have unearthed tens of thousands of artifacts.

“The evidence presented in this claim establishes beyond any reasonable doubt that the Muskogean-speaking Tribes are culturally affiliated with the Moundville archaeological site,” reads the claim sent to the University of Alabama by the tribes earlier this year. “Moundville is at least as closely affiliated with the Muskogean-speaking Tribes as Plymouth Colony is to the United States.”

Plymouth Colony was America’s first permanent Puritan settlement by English settlers known as the Pilgrims.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) passed in 1990 after tribes and their supporters discovered that museums, universities and collectors held hundreds of thousands of remains and objects from Native American burial sites. NAGPRA requires federally funded institutions, like the University of Alabama, to document remains and return them to tribes. However, tribal members and those working on behalf of tribes say the process is frustrating, tedious and slow.

Joining the Seminole Tribe on the Moundville claim are the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the Chickasaw Nation, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Alabama-Quassarte Tribal Town and Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.

All seven tribes say they share a common ancestry with the inhabitants of Moundville that has been passed down through language, oral history and shared traditions like architecture and craftsmanship. The tribes say they are descended from the Mississippian culture that was known for its mound building.

According to a report in Alabama news site AL.com, the University of Alabama has returned remains to tribes in the past. The current claim, however, is still under review.

“At this time, the University is still evaluating the claim and looks forward to working with the Tribes on this matter,” Matthew Gage, director of the Office of Archaeological Research at the University of Alabama said in a statement to AL.com.

Whether remains and funerary objects are designated as “culturally identifiable” or “culturally unidentifiable” is what often bogs claims down and causes issues and delays. More than half of the remains in the U.S. that have been inventoried have not been claimed because they have been designated as “culturally unidentifiable” – with no alleged direct link to federally recognized tribes.

Tribes establish connections based on different types of evidence, like similarities in a pottery style or Native language place names. Efforts are being made to revise NAGPRA to make the overall process more easy, fair and efficient for tribes.

Seminole success

The Seminole Tribe has made gains in recent years, especially as it pertains to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). The NMNH has a vast collection of about 1,500 Seminole ancestors and tens of thousands of archaeological artifacts.

In late 2020, the tribe’s eight-member repatriation committee, part of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO), was successful in pushing the NMNH to revise its policy. The updated policy includes provisions to repatriate that which was previously identified as “culturally unidentifiable.” It was considered a significant breakthrough, as NAGPRA does not apply to NMNH, which is covered by a separate repatriation law.

Domonique deBeaubien, THPO collections manager and member of the repatriation committee, said that along with NMNH there is other work always in progress, such as the current claim with the University of Alabama.

This year alone, deBeaubien said she’s worked with more than two-dozen federal agencies on NAGPRA repatriation-related consultations. She has also consulted on more than a dozen inadvertent discoveries throughout Florida – remains or objects that arise from work done by archaeological companies or commercial developers. Other discoveries from previous years often roll over as claims are resolved, deBeaubien said.

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 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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