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‘A lot of invisible labor’: Reflecting on the Florida Museum of Natural History’s 2023 repatriation progress

Thousands of Native American ancestors and cultural belongings at the Research and Collections facility for the Florida Museum of Natural History are being identified in the hopes of eventually reuniting them with their affiliated nations.

This past year, the Florida Museum of Natural History completed three Notices of Inventory Completion and one Notice of Intent to Repatriate Cultural Items under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, also known as NAGPRA. Since 1990, NAGPRA has required institutions that receive federal funds to protect and return both Native American remains and an array of cultural belongings.

Notices of Inventory Completion identify cultural affiliation with ancestors and cultural belongings, while Notices of Intent to Repatriate Cultural Items indicate that a request for repatriation has been received and accepted. These documents are then published in the Federal Register, the federal government’s official journal.

Over the course of 2023, the museum’s three Notices of Inventory Completion and one Notice of Intent to Repatriate Cultural Items accounted for 26 ancestors, 23 sacred objects used in traditional ceremonies, 6 unassociated funerary objects (where the funerary belongings were removed while the ancestor with them was left) and 3,722 associated funerary objects that came into care with the ancestors. These ancestors and cultural belongings range from origination in Okaloosa County to more than 450 miles away in Collier County.

The University of Florida’s biggest repatriation push in the past was in 2008, when 366 ancestors from Citrus County were returned.

Still, Catherine Smith, the museum’s first full-time NAGPRA coordinator, said numbers only tell one part of the story.

“As hard as we worked over the past year, realistically, that’s a drop in the bucket in terms of the amount of work we have yet to do,” Smith said. “It's a lot of invisible labor because of the extra level of caution, making sure that we're addressing everything, so all ancestors get to go home and none get left behind.”

The Florida Museum of Natural History is working as best as it can to pick up the pace, especially with new federal regulations adding more deadlines, she added.

In October 2023, the museum received an almost $100,000 grant from the National Park Service. Budgeting the funds needed for two years, the money will be used to continue toward the goal of addressing an additional 12% of the museum’s holdings by the end of the grant, doubling the percentage of Native American ancestors available for return from the University of Florida as of late November 2023.

The funds were also able to help the museum continue to decrease its numbers on the “culturally unidentifiable” list to respectfully affiliate these ancestors and arrange with nations to get them home, which was a factor Smith discussed in January 2023. This is currently being done for holdings from three northeastern Florida counties – Nassau, Duval and St. Johns – as these ancestors came from large cemeteries there.

Some of these Native American ancestors were centuries old, dating as far back as the Spanish mission period, so it’s due time to get them home, Smith said.

Another feat Smith and her team accomplished over the last year was reviewing the entirety of the museum’s holdings from northwest Florida, looking for any potentially overlooked ancestors and any funerary belongings associated with them.

“We had only committed to review six counties, and instead we reviewed 16,” she said.

These northwestern counties span across the panhandle from Escambia to Jefferson. The museum was able to use the funds from a $90,000 NAGPRA grant secured in 2021 to reach this goal.

After feedback from the nations that the Florida Museum of Natural History consults with, Smith’s team (including an archaeology/imaging project assistant) is now going back through its holdings from those 16 counties to account for summary items.

According to Smith, summary items are funerary belongings that are excavated while the ancestor is left in place, while general inventories address the ancestors themselves along with any funerary belongings that came into care with them.

For these summary items, Smith will write a letter to each Native American nation affiliated with those 16 counties to describe the museum’s holdings, consulting with those possessing more knowledge on traditions and cultures to try to connect the summary items to that tribe.

Darcie MacMahon, the director of exhibits and public programs at the museum, knows how important it is to get what she calls that “true human dimension” through these consultations.

She has begun working with the Seminole Tribe of Florida to redesign the South Florida People & Environments exhibit, which focuses on how estuaries supported the Native American Calusa people. The exhibit, now two decades old, was created through a close collaboration with Native American consultants, and the museum team is now building upon those past collaborations with a new generation of tribal members.

“We’re able to establish some continuity from the elders into the new generation through familial and cultural ties,” MacMahon said. “A museum curator can look at an object one way, but an indigenous person who has some connection to that object looks at it in a completely different way.”

“It’s fascinating – the intersection of where those stories come together is what I think makes a museum interpretation exciting,” she added.

Tina Osceola, director of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office, described the relationship the Seminole Tribe of Florida has with its ancestors as inextricable and reciprocal – they are still taking care of each other, she told WUFT in January 2023.

Though the tribe’s repatriation program has been operating for less than two decades, Osceola and Domonique deBeaubien, collections manager for the preservation office, appreciated the example UF set through their collaboration.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office was contacted for its perspective on the museum’s progress; however, DeBeaubien offered no further comment.

Smith believes there will be a time when 100% of cultural items related to NAGPRA held in the Florida Museum of Natural History’s collections will be returned – and it’s going to take an involved, intensive process to meet those federally designated deadlines.

It’s all about having those open conversations with each nation, she said, which isn’t easy as they hear from hundreds of institutions, spurred on by the federal regulation issued Jan. 12.

Permission must now be gained from these nations before displaying Native American objects in museums or other federal institutions. Other museums across the country, such as The Field Museum in Chicago and The American Museum of Natural History in New York City, have already responded by covering or closing displays as they await Native American consultation.

The Florida Museum of Natural History, however, has been having these kinds of conversations for years.

“The repatriation efforts are just one part of the larger conversation about relationships with nations,” Smith said. “Because we have other open conversations with them about particular spaces, while looking at the care of items and exhibits in which we may collaborate, we incorporate a larger museum emphasis on that engagement.”

Overall, annual progress can be difficult to measure, as the standard operating procedure for museums and universities is to quantify milestones.

“We should be expediting accounting and information availability on our end without rushing consulting nations to respond to meet our temporal expectations,” Smith said. “Relationships and these kinds of conversations take time.”

Brooke is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.
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