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USF anthropologists begin transfer of ancient ancestors to Native American tribes

The University of South Florida Department of Anthropology has begun the final steps in a long process to return the ancient ancestors of Native Americans, previously used for research, to the Seminole Tribe of Florida. 

USF has catalogued and curated the remains of 200 individuals collected over several decades. Many were discovered during archaeological investigations, excavations for construction projects or donated by the general public – primarily from locations in Florida. 

With support from the Seminole Tribe of Florida, some of their ancestors were recently reburied on protected land. The effort is part of the National Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 that requires institutions to inventory their holdings of Native American remains and funerary objects and consult with tribes on how they want to move forward in transferring custody.

Due to their condition, archaeologists previously labeled many of the remains as “culturally unidentifiable,” and used museums and universities, such as USF, as repositories for storage. Under federal law, the institutions are now required to consult with leaders of the tribal lands where the remains had been found to determine a course of action. 

Thomas Pluckhahn

Thomas Pluckhahn, professor of anthropology

Anthropology Professor Thomas Pluckhahn has reached out to more than 100 federally recognized tribes for consultation and has identified USF’s collection as being affiliated with nine tribes across five states.

“It’s a highly complicated process as some tribes may prefer that the remains of their ancestors stay with the museum, at least for the time being,” Pluckhahn said. “Others prefer to have them reburied, but don’t wish to have any physical contact with the remains – owing to spiritual prohibitions on handling them – and others want to move forward with reburial, such as the Seminole Tribe of Florida, as expeditiously as possible.” 

“The repatriation of our ancestors is paramount to the health and well-being of tribal populations today. Let’s not forget, the ancestors who sit in collections were erroneously stolen from their graves,” said Tina Marie Osceola, tribal member and director of the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office. “The more universities like USF work to correct the wrongs of the past, it is our hope that the moral compass of society will change, and the ancestors of indigenous people are no longer collected like fossils to line shelves.”

In addition to the Seminole tribes of Florida and Oklahoma, the human remains in USF’s possession are determined to be culturally affiliated with the Quapaw Nation, Osage Nation and Shawnee Tribe in Arkansas; the Hopi Tribe and the Zuni Tribe of the Zuni Reservation in Arizona; and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and the Morongo Band of Cahuilla Mission Indians in California. Pluckhahn is now working to return the remains to their descendants. 

To learn more about Pluckhahn's research, visit Boundless Bulls.

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