NAGPRA, Repatriation, and Relearning History

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

This blog is an email response to a follow-up question from a journalist writing a piece about Seminole Tribe of Florida efforts to get the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History to repatriate ancestors being held there. A little context is necessary. Last year the Peabody Institute repatriated ancestors from Florida to the Seminole. We continue to work with them on repatriation of other ancestors from neighboring states. That repatriation included decisions about affiliation, a key concept in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The tribe referred the reporter to me for some background on the broader questions of affiliation and the question of Seminole ancestors at the Smithsonian. After I had a conversation with the reporter, they had a talk with the Smithsonian’s repatriation personnel. Here’s the question that prompted my response, “I spoke with _____ at the Smithsonian about repatriation, and he says one reason he’s not turning over many of the remains held by his museum is that the Seminoles came to Florida in the 17th and 18th centuries. Since many of his remains are older than that, he doesn’t consider them Seminoles. Of course, the Seminoles disagree and say they are still their ancestors. I’m wondering how you made the determination that the remains you had could be returned to the Seminoles.”

Many thanks for sharing that question. I read your message yesterday afternoon and experienced a welling up of sadness at the thought that so many ancestors held by the Smithsonian really have no pathway to repatriation. I thought about this all night, on and off, thinking about my own rather longer than necessary journey to understanding, and feeling sadness for the ancestors and their modern-day descendants, and sympathy towards my archaeological colleagues who are struggling with this.

I have a couple of things to share that I hope will be helpful—the first are academic sources that helped in making our affiliation decision, while the second are more personal experiences. Reading this over, they are really all personal experiences.

A good place to start is Patricia Wickman’s 1999 book The Tree that Bends: Discourse, Power, and the Survival of the Maskoki People (University of Alabama Press). Wickman tackles this idea that somehow the modern Seminole and Miccosukee are disconnected from more ancient Indigenous people of Florida. She makes the case that this is an intentional white-washing of history, much like the Mound Builder Myth of the Ohio Valley, which was used by nineteenth century Americans to justify a push west and a land grab. In other words, if these Indigenous people have no real deep connections to the land, moving them out is perfectly justified. The book was controversial when it came out, because it went up against what we had all learned in school—and when I say school, I mean from elementary through graduate school. And archaeology and ancestors are a big part of this—those cemeteries, burials, and physical remains of the ancestors are tangible proof of long tenure on the land. Eugene Lyon, who has a blurb on the back cover and is mentioned in the acknowledgments of The Tree that Bends, was a history professor at Flagler College, he also was a peer reviewer of the book. I called him after I read it and we talked for a long time. Gene shared that maybe there were other histories that we needed to look for, what we might call hidden histories, and that this probably was one of them. That book, with whatever faults it may have, and my ensuing conversation with Gene really was a major bubble in my own understandings of Florida history and who the Seminole were and are. Gene passed in 2020, a victim of COVID-19—he was 91.

I would point to a couple of other academic things that I had already known about when Patricia’s book came out. In 1956 Frances Densmore, an ethnomusicologist affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, published a monograph Seminole Music (Bulletin 161 in the Bureau of American Ethnology series). I found a copy of this in a used bookstore while I was in grad school at the University of Florida in the early ‘90s. What caught my attention was that she had recorded several songs that the Seminole attributed to the Calusa—one of those ancient Florida Indigenous groups that was centered in southwestern Florida. That means they knew about these people and had some close contact.

That Densmore monograph made me revisit William C. Sturtevant’s 1953 article Chakaika and the “Spanish Indians,” which was published in the magazine Tequesta. Sturtevant was an anthropologist at the Smithsonian. In the Chakaika article he tackles this question of connection between the Seminole and earlier peoples, based on oral history with Indigenous people and history as written by Anglo-Americans. It’s long and complicated, and not particularly conclusive, but it would appear that even in the early nineteenth century there were a number of Indigenous groups in Florida, including the Seminole and Miccosukee, as well as Choctaw, people of mixed Spanish and Indigenous ancestry, and Calusa. He doesn’t come to any definite conclusions, but all these people were around, and around a lot later than the conventional wisdom would have us believe. They knew about one another, and it’s pretty clear they adopted some cultural practices, like those songs Densmore recorded.

So, those are some academic books and articles that tackle this question of Seminole origins and identity that diverge, either a little or a lot, from the accepted wisdom. Now, onto some more personal observations. I knew a fair number of Seminole folx growing up, and the oral history accounts shared by Sturtevant rang pretty true, but were perhaps a little more vehement in the ‘80s: basically, we’ve been here a long time, we have deep roots and connections with the land, and anything else is nonsense. Hmmm, okay. I went to college with James Jumper. Jimmy was in his late 40s and I was in my late teens/early twenties. He had come to Florida Atlantic University to study criminal justice and went on to get a law degree and worked for the tribe. He lived in the dorm next to mine, but we often compared notes on our classes and I had taken some criminology classes too. We sometimes ordered a pizza or cooked in the dorm kitchen or on the grill outside. We sat around and chit chatted. I told him about the history and archaeology that I was taking. He was kind and patient, but challenged what I told him about Seminole origins. No, we’ve been here a long time, he told me. First bubble.

Archaeologists Christine Newman and Ray McGee excavate ancient dugout canoes at Lake Pithlachocco in 2000.

In 2000 Lake Pithlachocco (aka Newnans Lake—named after Daniel Newnan who led an illegal early nineteenth century invasion of Florida to wage war against the Spanish and Indigenous inhabitants) near Gainesville, FL dried up. I was an archaeologist with the Florida Division of Historical Resources at the time and we started getting calls about dugout canoes being found. We follow up and there were hundreds of canoes. We conducted a project and documented about 50, including many from 4,000 to 5,000 years old. These were all really old canoes! We published an article in 2003 in American Antiquity called Archaic Period Canoes from Newnans Lake, Florida. What struck me was the Seminole and Miccosukee response when some of the canoes were damaged by a man who was permitted by the state to remove old logs (deadhead logs) from the lake. You can look up the newspaper accounts. Without going into a lot of detail, the response was akin to that when human burial sites were disturbed. Oh, the original, Indigenous name of the lake—Pithlachocco—that means something like “boat house” or “place of boats” in the Creek language spoken by the Seminole. So, we have these supposed recent immigrants in the people that become the Seminole and Miccosukee acknowledging an ancient site. Is this a coincidence? Another bubble.

One of my jobs when I worked for the Division of Historical Resources was following up on reports of unmarked human burials, a responsibility of our office under state statute 872.05. This work, which I ultimately wrote an article about (September 2013, The Florida AnthropologistFlorida’s Unmarked Human Burial Law: A Retrospective, 1987-2010) put me in pretty regular contact with representatives of the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes. I learned a lot from this experience, especially from Fred Dayhoff, who was the NAGPRA representative for the Miccosukee. Fred was not a member of the tribe, but he had a long relationship with them, and dealt with the complicated issues of archaeology and ancestors and burials. I would let him know about discoveries and disturbances, he would consult with the tribal leadership and elders, then work with me on implementing some solution. As you will see, if you get a chance to read my 2013 article, the focus was on preservation in place and reburial. And long conversations with Fred, as well as the representatives from the Seminole tribe, made me again question what I had learned in school. There were connections between the Seminole, Miccosukee, and the ancient tribes, what NAGPRA refers to as affiliation. More bubbles.

Probably the last bubble came in 2009 or 2010 when we started to have meetings with the Seminole tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO), helmed at that time by Paul Backhouse (you can read the book they wrote in 2017 called We Come for Good: Archaeology and Tribal Historic Preservation at the Seminole Tribe of Florida). I don’t remember what prompted the meetings, perhaps it was just the formation of the THPO office and some work to partner and collaborate more (I was Florida’s state archaeologist at that time). One of the meetings, at their offices there at Big Cypress, next to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, included some conversations with several of their cultural advisors. These were tribal members who were traditionalists, with deep knowledge of cultural practices, that served to advise the employees of the THPO. They explained, patiently, yet firmly, about the Seminole beliefs not just about ancestors, but about all archaeological sites. Even the most mundane and quotidian sites—little campsites with pottery fragments and animal bones from meals. These were the places where the ancestors had lived, where they had cooked, where they had raised their families. I was blown away. I had never made these connections. And, it was full circle—it was all about land and connections to place. The final bubbles. I realized that what I had learned in school, from my beloved teachers and professors, was just flat out wrong. And not just wrong, but harmful and hurtful to Indigenous people because it perpetuated the idea that somehow these Indigenous people were newcomers. Think about that—how crazy is that? We literally have a story that places Indigenous people as the newcomers after Anglo-Americans!

The author’s family home in Broward County, Florida, August 2021.

Last week I sold my family’s home in Florida—where my parents had lived since 1969 and where they had raised me. It was incredibly difficult to say goodbye to that place, and I expect it will remain challenging for a while. So many memories, so many connections. This is what those Seminole cultural advisors were sharing with me in 2009 or 2010. But not just fifty years of connections, millennia of connections. Generations upon generations of people all doing those human things that we all do.

In reflecting on all of this, I think a couple of things. One, I’m embarrassed that it has taken me so long to connect the dots, to see those bubbles breaking through the surface of what I had learned, and understanding that I needed to relearn history. I’ve been holding the threads of this history in my hand for a long time and I still don’t understand why it’s taken me so long to put it all together. What I learned was wrong. Maybe because our institutions, especially our educational institutions are powerful, and maybe too, because we respect and love our teachers. How could they be so wrong? Two, all of the Indigenous people, both in Florida and elsewhere, have been so patient with me. I’m not sure I deserve it, but they were and continue to be nothing but patient. They have always been there ready to help those bubbles break through the surface. I am so grateful for that patience and kindness. Three, in putting this in the context of NAGPRA and repatriation, the legal bar for affiliation is pretty low. The law requires a preponderance of the evidence, and that means slightly more than fifty percent. Looking back at the literature, oral history, and my own experiences, that requirement is met and exceeded. I don’t know the Smithsonian’s repatriation law (the Museum Act) like I do NAGPRA. Perhaps there are different requirements? But, both laws are about repatriation. These aren’t museum laws that help museum workers figure out how to hold onto ancestors and collections, they create processes for facilitating repatriation. That’s the intent, the goal. Four, I feel for my colleagues who haven’t figured all of this out yet. My message to them is, it’s not too late. Listen to people, listen to the tribes. Relearning history is hard, but it’s healing. Returning the ancestors doesn’t just heal Indigenous people and communities. This is trauma we all share, especially those of us who are archaeologists and historians, and we all need that healing. I hope this is helpful. I’m glad I had a chance to write this down. I’ve been wanting to write it down for a long time, but its hard.

As a coda to this message, I would note that things are changing. All of our institutions, from the Smithsonian down to our little museum in Andover, are colonial enterprises. There is no escaping that. And, many personnel at these institutions are stuck, because of policies and practices put in place by others, because of political pressures, whatever, to not support repatriation. While we are still part of the colonial machine, it is possible to change—some of this is generational. Younger people “get it.” The Society for American Archaeology (SAA) did a survey a few years ago and it demonstrated just this—and, the whole field has flipped. In the ‘80s when NAGPRA and the Museum Act were being debated, SAA and the American Alliance of Museums (the big museum organization) were oppositional, with a small minority of archaeologists and museum professionals recognizing that repatriation was a pathway to addressing some of the harm done by archaeology and museums. That is reversed now, largely on generational lines. As older professionals retire and leave the field, they are being replaced by younger people with new ideas who are learning all of the histories.

The organizations are changing as well. The January/February 2020 issue of Museum magazine, published by the AAM, was dedicated entirely to decolonizing, highlighting work done by museums, tribes, and Indigenous scholars and curators to change the relationships between museums and tribes. In July 2021, the SAA issued a draft statement on acknowledgment of the harm caused by archaeological practice. SAA members were asked for input on the statement, which followed the SAA’s adoption of a revised statement on the ethical treatment of human remains. This was the first time SAA had revisited this issue for more that 30 years–the previous statement on repatriation dated from the 1980s, prior to the passage of NAGPRA and the Museum Act. Just a few days ago, the Southeastern Archaeological Conference (SEAC) issued a statement supporting NAGPRA, including the following:

The Executive Committee of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference (SEAC) acknowledges the centrality of research on Indigenous cultures to the founding and perpetuation of our organization and discipline. Aspects of this history, in particular the treatment of ancestral human remains, have caused harm. We acknowledge this problematic history and seek to move forward in mutually respectful and productive partnerships with tribal nations. 

It’s our job as museum professionals, as archaeologists, as scholars, as educators, to not only educate ourselves, but to make sure students are learning the history and are given the tools to critically examine what they are being told.

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