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Seminole Tribe fighting to bring home ancestral remains from Smithsonian Museum

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Posted at 12:15 PM, Nov 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-12 12:15:02-05

CLEWISTON, Fl. — Traditions in Seminole country run deeper than the roots in these waters.

“Our home is a cypress swamp. It's a sawgrass prairie, but we find it home,” said Tina Osceola,

In this home, it’s tradition to honor those who came before.

“The health of our ancestors is the health of our living people,” said Osceola.

For Osceloa, preserving the ways of her Seminole ancestors has become her life’s work.

Now, she’s working to save something even more precious.

“We want our ancestors back. Plain and simple,” she said.

Over the years, the remains of more than 1,000 Seminole ancestors were excavated out of their graves and taken from this land for research.

“No one, no one talked to the tribes,” said Osceola. “Some of these digs that happened more than a hundred years ago were people just out digging around looking for them and then turning them over to universities and museums."

Today, more than 1,400 ancestral remains sit inside the Smithsonian Museum.

“We don't bury our relatives thinking or preparing that they could possibly be moved. It's so important that they come home, you know, they belong here,” said Osceola. “This is what they fought for. This is what they lived for. They, they deserve to be at least buried here.”

Under federal law, tribes can bring home, or repatriate, their ancestors and what they were buried with from universities and museums, but the tribe must prove to the museum the remains or objects belong to them.

“We know where they came from. We know who these ancestors are, it should be enough,” said Domonique DeBeaubien, the collections manager for the Seminole Tribe of Florida Tribal Historic Preservation Office.

DeBeaubien has worked for the tribe since 2011. She’s led the effort to bring the ancestors sitting inside the Smithsonian home, but it’s a complicated job.

Up until last year, the tribe could only claim remains that could be culturally identified. The Seminoles claimed 27 individuals.

In 2020, the Smithsonian changed its policy to allow tribes to repatriate culturally unaffiliated remains, meaning there’s little known about the remains and it’s harder to prove they belong to one tribe.

That opened the door to bringing home more than 1,400 culturally unidentifiable ancestors, and the Seminole tribe wants every one of these ancestors back. They are still going through the process of filing a claim for those ancestors.

“All the ancestors from the state of Florida, the tribe considers to be their people, their ancestral people, and they're deeply connected to those individuals,” said DeBeaubien.

We spoke with Dr. Bill Billeck of the Smithsonian Museum. He said he will do everything he can to send those remains home.

“We will work with them for a successful repatriation, it will take some time and we hope they will be patient with us,” said Billeck, head of repatriation.

Dr. Bill Billeck runs the repatriation department at the Smithsonian. He’s overseen thousands of items returned to tribes across the nation.

“We were excavating their village sites, their village sites, without any consultation. Repatriation is a way to address some of those issues that were poorly dealt with in the past.”

Billeck said this is only the beginning of a wider effort.

“There’s been a lot of progress that’s been made in repairing the damage done by museums and archaeologists; there’s still a long way to go,” said Billeck.

Billeck said he will make sure every remain the Seminole tribe is owed, comes home.

“Absolutely, this is going to have a positive outcome we have no doubt about that. It’s just a question of time," Billeck said.

In the meantime, he wants the tribe to know, this museum is caring for the ancestors it has.

“They’re currently at the support center. It’s humidity and climate-controlled,” he said.

For the tribe, that isn’t enough.

“It's pretty horrific to think that your ancestors, you know, are stored on a shelf just like someone would store copy paper. What we're dealing with when it comes to the collection and treatment of our ancestors is just another example of genocide,” said Osceola.

In time, Billeck said he will prove his commitment.

“It’s realistically going to take a few years. I take it very seriously that we do this right," he said.

Now, the tribe can only hope he means it.

“The people that we're trying to bring back have been silenced for a very long time. They didn't ask to be moved to be designated to sit somewhere on a shelf. So, you know, I try every day to give those ancestors a voice,” said DeBeaubien.

The process will take years, but Osceola. looks to the past to keep pushing forward.

“They never quit. You know, they died for us so that we could live and what would it be like if I quit now or that, we gave up on them? Because they certainly didn't give up for us.”