UF's bones of contention
Published: Wednesday, January 31, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 31, 2007 at 1:39 a.m.
Sixteen years after a federal law was instituted to allow for the reburial of human remains held in museums, the Florida Museum of Natural History is still struggling to comply with regulations that many view as complex, cumbersome and flawed.
The Florida Museum of Natural History, housed at the University of Florida, is among many museums across the country with significant holdings of human remains. Many of those remains, according to scientists, can't be connected to any federally recognized tribe and are categorized as "culturally unaffiliated." Here is a sampling of the holdings of some museums tied to universities that have significant holdings:
- Florida Museum of Natural History, housed at University of Florida
Unaffiliated Remains: 2,231
- University of Alabama Museums, Office of Archaeological Services
Unaffiliated Remains: 3,566
- University of Tennessee, Frank H. McClung Museum
Unaffiliated Remains: 3,451
- Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Sciences:
Unaffiliated Remains: 1,049
- University of Nebraska, Lincoln, State Museum:
Unaffiliated Remains: 553
- University of Kansas, Museum of Anthropology:
Unaffiliated Remains: 380
SOURCE: National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior
The museum, housed at the University of Florida, holds the human remains of at least 2,231 individuals, according to federal records. While a fraction of those skeletal remains - just six individuals - have been repatriated to federally recognized tribes, museum officials say none of the other bones can be connected to modern American Indians.
In hopes of returning some of the more thoroughly studied bones to the ground, the museum has reburied the bones of about 150 individuals not affiliated with any tribe, according to officials. But in so doing, the museum inadvertently violated federal guidelines designed to ensure American Indian groups are given full opportunity to reclaim them, a Gainesville Sun review of records has revealed.
Between 2000 and 2003, the museum reburied the remains at sites in Columbia and Nassau counties without authorization from the U.S. Secretary of the Interior or a court order, as required under federal law. Absent such authorization, American Indian groups may not be given notice of a museum's intent to rebury remains and therefore lose the final opportunity to reclaim them, according to a federal official familiar with the law.
"Once the remains are transferred to another party, they're gone. Third parties or fourth parties don't have the opportunity to come in anymore," said Tim McKeown, senior program coordinator for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Program, which governs reburials. "(Providing federally required notice) gives you a window during which you can raise your objections."
As required by law, the museum published a complete inventory of its holdings years ago. Without contacting the Secretary of the Interior before reburial, however, tribes were not given notice that they needed to act within 30 days if they hoped to make a case for reclaiming the remains.
Jerald Milanich, curator of archaeology for the museum at UF, said he was unaware of the relevant statute until advised by The Sun, but added that he would definitely follow it in the future.
"It was my fault," Milanich said. "If I would have known, I would have certainly done it."
The museum's reburials were conducted with the full knowledge of the state Bureau of Archaeological Research, Milanich said. Ryan Wheeler, the bureau's chief, never raised concern about whether federal guidelines were being followed, Milanich said.
Wheeler could not be reached for comment.
The museum's apparently inadvertent violation is suggestive of an ongoing struggle for federally funded agencies to comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a 16-year-old federal law that some scientists and American Indian representatives describe as confusing and subjective.
The act mandates that museums receiving federal funds inventory all of the skeletal remains and sacred objects in their collections. Once inventoried, federally recognized American Indian tribes can reclaim remains for reburial if a cultural affiliation between the tribe and the remains can be determined.
The problem, however, is that the vast majority of remains held by museums can't be connected to modern-day tribes, according to scientists. With only 0.3 percent of its holdings identified as culturally affiliated with recognized tribes, the Florida Museum of Natural History is not alone. Florida State University, for instance, has 741 remains in its holdings, none of which have been affiliated with any tribe, according to federal records.
"The remains we have (left) have no descendants today," said UF's Milanich. "How would one ever correlate a population that came from a mound in, say, Alachua County that is probably 1,500 years old with a group today? Everything's changed. ... Those connections cannot be made."
Milanich, who is in phased retirement from the museum, has been the museum's point man for years when it comes to handling human remains stored on the premises. Like many other archaeologists, Milanich now says he believes digging up these remains was ethically dubious in the first place and returning them to the earth - after they are sufficiently studied - is appropriate. While the law may not have been completely followed by the museum in two cases, Milanich says, "I think I did a good thing" by reburying the remains.
Upon learning of the regulation requiring federal approval for reburial of unaffiliated remains, Milanich immediately informed federal authorities of the museum's error. Under the law, the museum could face fines that are in part determined by a percentage of the museum's budget. Milanich, however, said he had not received any notice of pending federal action in connection with the reburials. Historically, federal authorities have not aggressively sought to penalize agencies that make good-faith efforts to comply with the law. But the law does allow for "any person" to report a potential violation to the secretary of the interior, which may prompt further inquiry or the levying of fines.
Federal officials have worked for years to craft a regulation that would comprehensively deal with how to handle tribally unaffiliated remains, but no such regulation has been implemented. In the absence of such a regulation, federal agencies that seek to rebury human remains must go before a committee that recommends whether the secretary of the interior should approve the re-interment.
The committee, which is made up of scientists and American Indian representatives, may recommend that an agency consult with tribes that have a potentially legitimate claim to the remains.
As it's written, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act has critics among both archaeologists and American Indians. Willard Steele, tribal historic preservation officer for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, says the law is "cumbersome and lengthy."
The law also places too great a burden on under-resourced tribes to "prove" they have a legitimate right to rebury their ancestors, Steele said. This shifting of the burden of proof to the tribes, as Steele describes it, gives birth to a debate that is equal parts scientific, legal and philosophical. The old bones stored in museum closets must be related in some way to someone, but to whom?
"Can you go back 1,500 years in your family? Basically, what they're saying is the law is never going to apply to anything more than three or four generations back," Steele said. "I don't think that was the intent of the law."
For example, while some archaeologists may call the Calusa tribe "extinct," Steele refutes that notion. Calusa commonly intermarried with other tribes, and they are no doubt culturally connected to modern-day American Indians, Steele said.
"It was almost like a Stephen King thing. They disappeared," Steele said of some archaeologists' view of the Calusa. "They're all gone, and that's the problem with their logic. ... Science is attempting to apply its limited knowledge to the law. Tribal members know the Calusa are still here."
The Kennewick Man
At no time has the debate over human remains been so public and so fiery as in the case of the so-called "Kennewick Man." The remains of the Kennewick Man, more than 9,000 years old, were found on the bank of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Wash., in 1996.
The discovery of the bones in Washington pitted two groups against each other in an emotional debate about who has the right to speak for the dead. On one side were American Indian groups who wanted the remains reburied, and on the other side were scientists who hoped to learn about the continent's early inhabitants through analysis of the remains.
In a lengthy legal battle, scientists disputed several tribes' claims that Kennewick Man was culturally affiliated with modern-day American Indians, and in 2004 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the scientists. Today, the remains are housed at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington, where they have been since 1998.
The legal wrangling over the Kennewick Man represents the worst possible avenue for dealing with a dispute over remains, according to David Hurst Thomas, curator of anthropology for the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The best-case scenario is for tribes and scientists to work together to make these decisions, he said.
But sometimes it's not that simple. While the Kennewick Man debate may be resolved in the eyes of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the question of whether a skeleton that is thousands of years old can still be called "American Indian" remains unanswered.
"Drawing that line is a very tricky thing, and it's a very political process," said Thomas, author of "Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity."
"It's that nebulous part about how far back you can push this in time, and the law still is not really clear on that," he said.
Lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have previously introduced legislation that would seek to clarify what is to be done in cases where tribal affiliation is murky or impossible to determine. A process is also under way to add new language to federal regulations that would better deal with unaffiliated remains. But for some American Indians, the legal and political process has too long delayed progress.
Bobby C. Billie, spiritual head of the Independent Traditional Seminole Nation of Florida, says he would like to see all indigenous remains put back in the ground where they belong.
"They have to go back somehow," he said. "That's what we believe. It belongs to Mother Earth. It doesn't belong to a museum."
Jack Stripling can be reached at 374-5064 or Jack.Stripling@gvillesun.com.
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