The University of Alabama keeps native remains in paper bags; NAGPRA Federal Committee Says Remains Are Tribal Ancestors and Can Be Returned

The University of Alabama museums have skeletons in their closets, literally.

Over the past decade, the seven Muskogean-speaking tribes that originally resided in what is now Alabama have requested the return of approximately 5,892 human remains – their ancestors – and the artifacts buried with them. at the University of Alabama. The university has an archaeological park, called Moundville, from where the remains have been excavated.

“Basically, this is like saying that the University of Alabama has in its possession thousands of our ancestors who belonged to the original homeland of the Southeast, Muscogee Creek People, as well as other tribes” , Muscogee Nation spokesman Jason Salsman told Native News Online. The other six tribes are the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the Chickasaw Nation, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, the Tribal Town of Alabama-Quassarte, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, settlers drove these tribes from their homelands to Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana.

“This repatriation fight has been going on, in our minds, for quite a long time,” Salsman said.

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For years, the University of Alabama has said it’s open to consulting with tribes, but it’s questioned the cultural affiliation or connections between the human remains it has and current tribes. He also said he would not return the grave goods, which are currently on display in his museum, according to testimony from the tribes.

In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). It requires federal agencies and museums receiving federal funds to compile an inventory of Native American human remains and grave goods in their possession; consult the tribes on what to do with them; and generally give lineal descendants or culturally affiliated tribes the right to make the final decision on what to do with them, such as reburial or long-term preservation.

But a loophole in the law has allowed the majority of cataloged remains – those without documented tribal affiliation, considered “culturally unidentifiable” – to slip through the cracks. Although museums and agencies were still required to report these remains, there was no time limit or requirement for a museum to identify its cultural affiliation. In the 1990s, the University of Alabama listed the Moundville remains as culturally unidentifiable.

On November 24, a federal committee that oversees NAGPRA made clear the cultural connection of Moundville’s descendants.

In response to a petition filed jointly by the seven tribes, the NAGPRA review panel found a “preponderance of evidence of cultural affiliation” between the seven Muskogean-speaking tribes and the human remains and cultural artifacts found at the park. Moundville Archeology. Members of the review panel called the 117-page document provided by the tribes a “strong case” with “overwhelming evidence”.

The tribes spent a year preparing their application for the committee, including linguistic evidence, geographic evidence, oral traditions, kinship, biological, historical and anthropological evidence.

“Going well beyond preponderance, the evidence presented in this claim establishes beyond reasonable doubt that Muskogean-speaking tribes are culturally affiliated with the Moundville Archaeological Site,” the claim reads. “Moundville is at least as closely affiliated with Muskogian-speaking tribes as Plymouth Colony is in the United States. Moundville is at least as important to our contemporary identities and communities as Plymouth Colony is to the United States.

Muscogee Nation Tribal Historic Preservation Officer RaeLynn Butler said she was pleased with the outcome, but shocked when she thinks of the ancestors whose remains are still in museum cupboards, like at the other location. of the University of Alabama which holds collections, the Office of Archaeological Research.

“I don’t think the university was ever upfront with the number of skeletons that were in their closet,” Butler told Native News Online.

According to documents from tribal visits to the museum — specifically one in 2016, during a consultation where, it was claimed, the university wanted to demonstrate how well it cared for the Tennessee Valley Authority’s collection — the human remains were kept in plastic bags in five-gallon buckets on the floor, brown paper bags “with overflowing burial filling,” and cardboard boxes “with gaping holes in the sides.”

“To let people know it’s almost 6,000 [remains] I think it’s overwhelming,” Butler said. “And that they’ve had them for almost 80 years?” I think anyone new to this would be shocked and should be shocked. Because why keep them? And what have [they] done with them?

According to Butler, the university has used Moundville ancestors and their grave goods for more than 200 publications and studies, although last year it instituted a moratorium on research studying the ancestors.

During the 2016 visit to examine the TVA collection, tribal observers noted that images of grave goods were displayed on desktop computer screensavers.

“It’s a night and day difference in how they store human remains, versus how they store grave goods, which have their own shelf and have a very secure facility to which only four people have access,” Butler said. “They have some styrofoam and different things around them to make sure they don’t wobble or fall over, instead of having 200 people on a shelf in brown paper bags.”

The tribes are waiting for the response from the university.

In a Nov. 19 letter to the tribes obtained by Native News Online, the university’s executive vice president, James Dalton, wrote that “the University of Alabama seeks to consult and acknowledge the joint claim to the remains human beings and funerary objects of the Muskogian-speaking tribes”. at the Moundville site and associated sites in Tuscaloosa and Hale counties, Alabama. The University will provide you with a more detailed response in the coming days outlining our thoughts on the most productive and efficient way to respond to the pending joint request through the consultation process.

University spokeswoman Monica Watts told Native News Online that the university sent the letter to the seven tribes “requesting the start of consultation” but had “not received any acknowledgment from the tribes. “. She was referring to the letter in which Dalton told the tribes to expect a more detailed response “in the coming days.”

Watts also noted that the university was not “invited to participate” in the NAGPRA oversight committee meeting and that “any decisions were made solely on the basis of information presented by the requesting tribes.”

But the committee’s rules of procedure do not stipulate that all relevant parties must be present.

According to the Federal Policy on the Fact-Finding Procedure of the NAGPRA Review Panel, the seven tribes’ application was within the law, “where the petitioning Indian tribe…can show its cultural affiliation by a preponderance of evidence based on geography, kinship, biological, archaeological, anthropological, linguistic, folkloric, oral traditional, historical or other relevant information or expert opinion”.

“The ball is in their court now,” Butler said. “Their letter just saying they are going to consult is not enough for us after six years of hearing this, because when is this going to happen? We feel that our patience has been put to good use and now we just want action.

To displayMany of the items on display at the Moundville Archaeological Park Museum are grave goods that were buried with ancestors. It is culturally inappropriate for grave goods to be photographed or displayed. (Photo courtesy of RaeLynn Butler)

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About the Author

Jenna Kunze
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Personal editor

Jenna Kunze is a reporter for Native News Online and Tribal Business News. His bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Smithsonian Magazine and Anchorage Daily News. In 2020, she was one of 16 American journalists selected by the Pulitzer Center to report on the effects of climate change in the Arctic region of Alaska. Previously, she was a senior reporter at the Chilkat Valley News in Haines, Alaska. Kunze is based in New York.


Ethel J. Montes