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Federal committee says University of Alabama must return historic objects to tribes

Muscogee Nation leadership, Hickory Ground delegation and administration from the University of Alabama tour Moundville Archaeological Park and Museum in Moudville, Alabama in November 2021.
Principal Chief David Hill / Facebook
Muscogee Nation leadership, Hickory Ground delegation and administration from the University of Alabama tour Moundville Archaeological Park and Museum in Moudville, Alabama in November 2021.

The Muscogee Nation is celebrating the decision by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Review Committee that the remains and funerary objects held by the university are culturally affiliated and should be returned.

Several other tribal nations, including the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, the Alabama-Quassarte Tribal Town and the Seminole Nation of Florida have asked the University of Alabama to return the remains and sacred objects. Their return is required under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, but the tribal nations say the university has used questions about cultural affiliation to delay repatriation for years.

The objects were located in Moundville, Alabama, which was part of the Muscogee Nation’s homeland before the Tribe was removed to Oklahoma.

Muscogee Nation Principal Chief David Hill led a delegation to Alabama in early November to expedite the process.

“We have requested the return of our ancestors for years, and the excuses for delay are over," said Hill in a press statement. "With the finding that the remains and funerary objects discovered in Moundville are culturally affiliated with the seven tribes that have petitioned for their return, there is no reason to wait any longer. The time has come for our ancestors to rest in peace.”

Because the process to return nearly 6,000 human remains has been ongoing for several years, the tribal nations say they feel like they are in bureaucratic limbo.

"You know, this work is so important for us because there's a lot of healing that needs to be done," said RaeLynn Butler, who works in the Historic and Cultural Preservation Department for the Muscogee Nation.

Butler said before the committee ruling, the University of Alabama had not planned to return any of the objects and argued the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act is unconstitutional after a revision that allows for the return of remains that are culturally unidentifiable.

"It is very, very hard for descendants to know and learn about so many excavations that happened, even if they did happen 80 years ago,” said Butler. “Finding out doesn't make it hurt any less."

The Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, was passed in 1990. The law requires institutions that receive federal funding, including museums and universities, to return or repatriate items of cultural patrimony, human remains, funerary objects and sacred objects to tribal nations. The U.S. Department of the Interior may assist with implementing the law and can leverage fines to agencies that fail to comply.

The review committee says if the University of Alabama doesn't return the items, it will be in violation of the NAGPRA law.

Here is the committee's official ruling: “The Review Committee finds, based on the evidence before it, that there is a preponderance of the evidence for cultural affiliation between the human remains and funerary items, originating from, and adjacent to, Moundville (1Tu500), and the Muskogean-Speaking Tribes. The requesting, affected parties making a request for this finding are the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, The Chickasaw Nation, Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, Muscogee Creek Nation, Seminole Tribe of Florida, and Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, with support from the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians and the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas.”

Now, University of Alabama officials must initiate a tribal consultation and complete an inventory of the remains along with the funerary objects.

James T. Dalton, Executive Vice President and Provost of the University of Alabama, said in a letter that he hopes to work with tribes on this matter.

Butler said the return of the remains is a human rights issue.

"To be able to care for your deceased and to protect their graves is something everybody has a right to do, yet Native American people are constantly taken out of that equation or not considered at the same standard."

Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
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