CLEWISTON, Fla. (AP) - For decades, Florida’s Seminole Tribe has been fighting to reclaim their ancestors who were stolen from burial sites across the state during the height of colonialism in North America.
Now, thanks to a brand new policy at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, they’ll have the chance to bring their ancestors back home.
The conflict stemmed from imprecise labeling and record keeping when the remains and artifacts were exhumed from burial grounds.
Throughout the 1900s, the Smithsonian obtained human remains and archaeological artifacts through donations and acquisitions - including nearly 1,500 Seminole ancestors and tens of thousands of archaeological artifacts that had been exhumed from burial sites across the state, according to the tribe.
In some cases, archaeologists said they weren’t sure which native tribe the remains belonged to. They labeled them “culturally unaffiliated.”
Those remains ended up on display at the Smithsonian but weren’t tied to any specific tribe. And because legislation such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act didn’t apply to the Smithsonian when it was passed in 1990, the museum didn’t have to set up a framework for native tribes to reclaim their ancestors to bring them back to their rightful resting place, according to the Seminole Tribe.
Facing mounting pressure from many native tribes, including the Seminoles, the Smithsonian changed course and decided to allow the tribes to reclaim their ancestors, even if archaeologists hadn’t said the remains came from a specific tribe.
The victory opens the door for native tribes to begin that process and remedies some of the damage inflicted upon Native American tribes by the legacy of colonialism, said Paul Backhouse, historic preservation officer for the Seminoles.
“It’s hugely significant right now for Indian Country in general and for the Seminole tribe in Florida,” he said. “It’s a huge victory for indigenous rights.”
Other native tribes have also been fighting for the change, Backhouse said. The policy needed to be updated to give equal weight to tribal knowledge and oral histories that could identify their ancestors, even when archaeologists could not.
“That’s a big issue for Native American tribes who always have known who they belong to, because they’re their ancestors,” Backhouse said. “Just because there wasn’t an object buried with them that indicates they’re Seminole doesn’t mean they’re not ancestors of Seminole and Miccosukee populations that still live in Florida.”
For years, Native American groups have been seen as the “other,” as objects of examination rather than characters in their own story, Backhouse said.
Many other tribes have fought for the same goal for years, but the Smithsonian turned them away, said Bill Billeck, the museum’s head of repatriation. Now that the Seminole Tribe has won, the museum will inform the rejected tribes of the policy change, he said.
The new policy, officially adopted Oct. 5, affects Native American tribes, Native Alaskan and Native Hawaiian organizations.
As for the archaeological artifacts, those could be anything native-made or even trade items from contact with Europeans, Billeck said. Backhouse said it’s anything that the ancestors had with them when they died.
That could include pottery, jewelry, hand-carved bone tools, arrowheads, and wooden effigies.
The Smithsonian has returned about 6,200 ancestors and over 200,000 artifacts that they know belonged to certain tribes and were so deemed “culturally affiliated” with that tribe. Now, when tribes request to reclaim their ancestors who have been labeled “culturally unaffiliated,” Billeck’s staff will have to handle it on a case by case basis, he said.
Tina Osceola, a member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and associate justice for the tribal court, said the victory had been a long time coming and was generations overdue.
“I hope that the nation and world will shift their beliefs that our culture and people are only valuable when owned, displayed or studied,” she said.
The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Museum in Clewiston posted about the victory on Facebook, and shared a photo from when tribe members visited Washington, D.C., to push Congress to change the policy. They shared the social media hashtag related to their efforts: #NoMoreStolenAncestors.
In the Seminole language, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki means a place to learn and a place to remember.
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