ORLANDO, Fla. – The Seminole Tribe of Florida is making a push to get back the remains of their ancestors currently in the possession of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
“To think that we have to validate why it’s important that we have our ancestors put back where they came from and where they were initially buried is completely inhumane,” Tina Marie Osceola, a Seminole Tribe member and director for the tribal historic preservation office said. “When we bury our people, even today, it’s done so thinking they are never going to be moved. I can’t even comprehend we of all people, the indigenous of this country, are asked to validate what we believe in.”
The Florida Seminole tribe is requesting the remains of 1,492 of their ancestors be returned to them.
“I think that any human walking on this planet would think that the burial of their ancestors is something that should be protected,” Osceola said.
The remains were found in ancient villages and burial sites all across Florida.
“They were collected by a number of individuals. It could be Smithsonian sponsored excavations — they’re primarily you know excavations,” Dr. Bill Bellick, head of the repatriation department for the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History said. “Most of them came to the Smithsonian, probably more than 90 years ago.”
The tribe’s claim was done under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation act established in 1990. The law protects the cultural and biological remains of Native Americans and their ancestors.
“That required us to return human remains and funerary objects to culturally affiliated federally recognized tribes,” Billeck said. “That process it has to be by a preponderance of evidence.”
The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History told News 6 that they’re working with the tribe but the process of repatriation has to be done under the National Museum of American Indian law, and the tribe has to prove there’s a cultural affiliation between the tribe and the human remains in question.
“I think we know that that process is going to be very lengthy once that request is submitted which is unfortunate because the tribe has waited enough and they are not concerned with these distinctions and these labels that the museum has put on their ancestors,” Domonique deBeaubien, the collections manager for the Seminole tribe said.
Dr. Zack Gilmore, an assistant professor of archeology at Rollins College said the practice of excavating native human remains has changed over the past several decades.
“Unfortunately, archeologists for a long time treated human remains in the same way they did any other artifact, right? As a window into the past without much consideration for these being the remains of actual people and more importantly the ancestors of still-living people,” Gilmore said. “Very few archeologists actually target or intentionally excavate human remains — indigenous human remains in the U.S. anymore. Since the passage of NAGPRA the law regarding repatriation, that’s avoided in general.”
According to Gilmore, if an archeologist comes upon a Native burial site, the protocol is to call the state archeologist who will let them know that the burial site has to be covered up again.
“The purpose of excavating human remains was to learn more about people’s lives in the past. over the last few decades. Our ethical standards have evolved to the point where most archeologists today are very much more sensitive to the excavations and the treatment of human remains,” he said.