At the turn of the 19th century, a new trend had taken hold for archeologists and others across the country: digging up Native American grave sites and collecting as much as they could of the human remains and funerary objects — from the sacred to the deeply personal — buried with them.
They were inspired by the myth of the “vanishing” Native race, and their findings filled museums and universities.
“People built entire careers, they built huge endowments, they built huge museums,” said Cutcha Risling Baldy, a researcher and department chair of Native American studies at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California.
“The real value of it was trying to justify this underlying belief that somehow Native people were just in the past. They weren’t someone’s ancestors. They were objects and artifacts.”
Among the institutions that benefited was the University of Alabama. The university's Jones Archeological Museum showcases dozens of objects unearthed in graves. Thousands of human remains sit in storage on campus. Tribal historians say they have seen remains spilling out of paper sacks on visits.
Most were dug up from Moundville, a central Alabama site where the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee and Seminole nations, as well as others, trace their heritage. The Choctaw were forced to cede the land and move to Oklahoma in what became known as the Trail of Tears.
The tribes — like many tribes across the country — have been trying to repatriate their ancestors’ remains and the items placed in their graves. But the university in Tuscaloosa has resisted.
“As Indigenous people, it connects us deeply with our homeland,” said Ian Thompson, senior director of historical preservation for the Choctaw Nation, to which he belongs. “It connects us deeply with our culture.”
University of Alabama insists remains not tied to Indigenous groups
University officials contend the remains of 5,892 people from Moundville have no connection to the Indigenous groups forced from Alabama.
The insistence has allowed the university to hold on to the remains and funerary objects despite a 1990 law that was supposed to ensure repatriation. In practice, federal officials have little power to make universities comply.
And confusing regulations can stymie tribes’ efforts, said Suzan Shown Harjo, one of the main architects of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
That’s particularly true when academics maintain there’s no tie between the remains and living people, because institutions then have more flexibility to hold on to funerary objects.
“Everyone should ask of every institution, ‘What good are they doing you if you can’t identify them?’” Harjo said. “What do you do? Do you go to bed with them at night? Do you hold them? What kind of weird fetish do you have with our ancestors? It’s ghoulish.”
The limit of the current repatriation law was underscored during a hearing this month. A federal review committee sided with seven tribes trying to establish their connection to the Moundville remains.
But the vote won’t force University of Alabama officials to take steps toward repatriation. Several committee members wondered aloud what else they could do to make the school comply with the law, which is often referred to by its acronym, NAGPRA.
Federal officials are working to update the complex regulations, but those talks have been ongoing for years and have no set date of completion.
In a statement, the University of Alabama said it has “worked diligently” to comply with the federal law. It has signed memorandums of understanding with the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations and has agreed to repatriate the remains to the latter tribe, though Choctaw officials say that has yet to happen.
The university said it consults with tribes before excavations at Moundville and that its storage of remains are “consistent with best practices.”
“It is a priority of the university to educate the campus, community and others within the state and region about the history of Moundville,” the university said.
Alabama officials did not present any evidence during the hearing. The school said it was not invited to do so. But days before, the school sent a letter to the tribes, saying it would seek to consult with them over the remains, a step required by the federal repatriation law.
'Really about racism and institutional arrogance'
Tribes say the university has failed to make good on pledges to consult for nearly 15 years.
“They repeat these talking points that they are open to consultation that, from experience, is not the truth,” said Turner Hunt, an archeological technician for his Muscogee Nation in eastern Oklahoma. He read the letter once, then thought to himself, “That’s not helpful.”
Advocates hope that growing awareness to the harms done to Indigenous communities will prompt the University of Alabama — and other institutions that have massive collections of Native remains — to repatriate.
“If you are an alum of Alabama, do you care that there are more dead Native Americans in your institution in basements and in boxes than there are live Native Americans going to that school?” said Shannon O’Loughlin, chief executive and attorney for the Association on American Indian Affairs based near Washington, D.C. She is Choctaw.
Of the University of Alabama’s 38,300 students, fewer than 700 are Native.
“It’s really about racism and institutional arrogance about who should have control of Native American culture, our ancestors and our religious and sacred items,” O’Loughlin said.
Indigenous society before colonization
Muscogee leaders traveled from Oklahoma and visited Moundville earlier in November. Hunt saw the awe on the faces of tribal leaders who felt a deep connection to the site.
The university advertises the grassy mounds as “one of the premier Native American heritage sites.”
Tribal historians say Moundville was inhabited for nearly 600 years until around 1650. The community reached its height in population around 1200, then several daughter communities began to split off, Thompson said. It remained neutral territory between the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Coushatta and Muscogee.
“It’s a place that speaks to the attainment of Indigenous society before colonization,” Thompson said.
Muskogean-speaking tribes trace their common connection to Moundville through several veins, which include language, archeology, geology and oral history. “The traditional American textbook goes back 500 years,” Thompson said. “The histories of the Muskogean-speaking tribes go back nearly 30 times further.”
Patterns found on pottery in the region are still significant in Muscogee culture. And the Muscogee governing body and courts meet in a mound-shaped structure in Okmulgee, on the tribe’s reservation in Oklahoma.
Hunt wants to think about Moundville in a positive light. But he can only conjure negative feelings because of the University of Alabama, he said.
“They have put up so much resistance that they have a long way to come back to even,” he said.
No one questions Plymouth Colony’s connection to the United States, Thompson said. But Indigenous groups forced out of the Southeast are having to prove their ties to the ancestors buried in the lands they left.
“These are the people you came from,” Harjo said. “How dare they come to our countries and tell us who we’re related to and who were not related to, based on whose graves they dug up and who they want to keep?”
A federal campaign throughout the 1800s forced Native communities from the eastern U.S. The government signed treaties with tribes promising land in western states. Many tribes forced to leave the Southeast were moved to Oklahoma, where they maintain close political and cultural ties.
As Indigenous people were being pushed out, the University of Alabama opened to students in 1831.
The repatriation fight
Deanna Byrd, NAGPRA liaison for the Choctaw Nation, has contacted dozens of museums and universities about their collections of Native American remains and objects. She is currently working with 59 institutions.
Many approach repatriations from a point of mutual respect, which leads to deeper understanding on both sides, she said. None has responded like the University of Alabama, she said.
In a statement, the university said it looks forward to “taking part in this collaborative effort to honor and preserve the cultural heritage of the Moundville civilization.”
But Byrd said communications have always been funneled through long chains of command, without any progress toward repatriation.
The University of Alabama took over stewardship of Moundville in 1961 from the state. The school hosted its first repatriation meeting in 1996, after the federal repatriation law was passed.
In the 25 years since, the school has never repatriated any remains or funerary objects linked to Moundville, Thompson said. In 2018, university officials said they planned to recount the remains over the next five years, then begin the repatriation process.
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But the school has maintained the remains are “culturally unidentifiable,” according to letters submitted by the tribes as evidence in the federal hearing.
“Quite often institutions determined cultural affiliation without even consulting with tribes, and it was often decided that if the ancestors in question lived before European arrival, then they weren't culturally affiliated with Native Americans today,” Thompson said.
The finding is the central issue in the dispute.
Classifying remains as unidentifiable allowed universities and museums to more quickly complete inventories of remains required under NAGPRA in the late 1990s, O’Loughlin said. That shifts the burden to tribes to prove their connection.
As the only Indigenous communities living in the region, Muskogean-speaking tribes, “are absolutely related” to people buried at Moundville,” she said. “Those people didn’t just stop existing and unconnected tribes took over.”
If remains aren’t connected to a particular culture, museums and universities can more easily retain the objects buried with each person under the repatriation law.
Separating those items from the people they were buried with is harmful, said Hunt, who saw several dozen funerary objects displayed at the Moundville museum.
The items were selected by relatives and friends to send people on their final journey, said Tina Osceola, the tribal historic preservation officer for the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
“We are the only political group in this nation who are regularly asked to prove who we are, what we believe in and who we come from,” Osceola said.
The items are supposed to receive the same treatment as remains when cultural affiliation is clear, Harjo said.
“They keep trying to put us in a special category of not quite being humans and being entitled to human rights that other people are entitled to,” she said.
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Piles of evidence
Representatives of seven tribes compiled more than 100 pages of evidence about their connection to Moundville for the federal repatriation review committee. They also pointed to the university’s public statements. Every year, the University of Alabama hosts a Native American heritage festival at the site. Members of the Choctaw and Muscogee nations often are invited to take part.
Byrd pointed to advertising material from the festival during the federal review hearing. “Each October, descendants of this vibrant culture return, celebrating the South’s rich Indian heritage.”
John Beaver, a Muscogee citizen who sits on the review committee, noted the disparity between the festival at Moundville and the university's stance over the remains found there. “You keep being invited to these public presentations, but why are you being invited if you’re not affiliated to the culture that’s being represented there on the site?” Beaver asked.
The six-person review committee concluded the “preponderance of the evidence” establishes that the Muskogean-speaking tribes are tied to the site.
Although some committee members questioned what else they could do to prompt the University of Alabama to begin the formal consultation process, it ultimately did not vote on any further steps.
The school’s letter to tribes in November acknowledged their tribes’ joint repatriation claim and said it would “seek to consult.”
Promised consultation never actually happens, Osceola told the review committee. “It's just nothing but strategies on their part to stall.”
NAGPRA lays out fines if institutions don’t comply, but experts say those are rarely enforced. Some institutions have yet to publish inventories of remains that were required by 1995.
Alabama also is not alone in its massive collections. The University of California, Berkeley has nearly 10,000 remains.
Tribes can sue institutions that fail to comply, and in the case of the University of Alabama, the review committee’s finding can be used as evidence.
For Byrd, seeing the repatriation process through is a sacred responsibility. “We all want to see these ancestors find the peace that they were originally intended,” she said.
Molly Young covers Indigenous affairs for the USA Today Network's Sunbelt Region of Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 405-347-3534.
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Oklahoma tribes fight University of Alabama over Moundville remains