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USF works to return remains to tribes

This platform mound at the Safety Harbor archaeological site in Pinellas County’s Philippe Park is the probable location of a town once inhabited by the Tocobaga Indians of Tampa Bay. USF professor Thomas Pluckhahn said the school has the “very partial remains” of an ancestor that may have been obtained from the site. (Courtesy USF)

The University of South Florida’s Department of Anthropology said Oct. 10 that it is in the final steps of a long process to return ancestral remains to various tribes, including the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. USF said in a school news report that the remains have previously been used for “research purposes.”

The report said USF has catalogued the remains of 200 individuals collected over several decades. It said many were discovered during archaeological investigations, excavations for construction projects, or had been donated by the public. USF anthropology professor Thomas Pluckhahn has identified USF’s collection as being affiliated with nine tribes across Florida, Oklahoma, Arizona, Arkansas and California. 

“With support from the Seminole Tribe of Florida, some of their ancestors were recently reburied on protected land,” the report said.

Federal law requires institutions to consult with tribal leaders when remains have been found to determine a course of action. Due to their condition, the report said, archaeologists have previously labeled many remains as “culturally unidentifiable,” and used museums and universities as repositories for storage.

“The repatriation of our ancestors is paramount to the health and well being of tribal populations today. Let’s not forget, the ancestors who sit in collections were erroneously stolen from their graves,” Tina Osceola, the director of the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office, said in the report. “The more universities like USF work to correct the wrongs of the past, it is our hope that the moral compass of society will change, and the ancestors of Indigenous people are no longer collected like fossils to line shelves.”

USF has three campuses in the Tampa Bay region. Click here to read the full report, or go to