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The University of Florida holds the remains of thousands of Native American ancestors – the 11th largest holding in the U.S.

Museum staff must now sort through all of their collections – box by box and tray by tray – to make sure no ancestors were overlooked. (Florida Museum of Natural History)
Museum staff must now sort through all of their collections – box by box and tray by tray – to make sure no ancestors were overlooked. (Florida Museum of Natural History)

Some tribal leaders say the university’s efforts to return them should serve as a model

In the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History collections, along with wooly mammoth bones and megalodon teeth, sit at least 2,500 Native American ancestors – more than the number of enrolled Native American students.

The university has long been used as a repository for belongings – and people – found in the ground as federal agencies and others developed land in the region.

But these are not artifacts, challenge those seeking their return. They are human beings with family members. It’s time to bring them home.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 requires it. Federal agencies and museums that receive federal funds, including the University of Florida, must follow a process to return Native American ancestors and culturally important belongings.

“A lot of the history of collections came from originally European colonial exploration,” Catherine Smith said. “There’s this long history of treating items as curiosities or exploring or investigating. But these items have special meaning to these nations.”

Smith was hired in October as the university’s first full-time repatriation coordinator, part of a renewed repatriation push.

“We want to get this done quickly,” said Catherine Smith, hired in October to lead the University of Florida’s effort to return the ancestors and belongings. “We recognize that tribal nations actually feel harm the entire time we’re holding their ancestors.” (Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

In 2008, the university returned several hundred ancestors – taken from Citrus County  – but thousands remain. Smith said most likely they belong to three peoples: The Seminole Tribe of Florida, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida.

She faces a significant challenge: to inventory every belonging in the university’s collections and determine what may be of interest and to whom they rightfully belong.

Smith and the tribes she works with challenge colonial framing with their words. Instead of the legal language like “objects” and “human remains,” they say “cultural belongings” and “ancestors.”

Even the way the museum stores these belongings is rooted in European thinking, something Smith described as an “eye-opening moment” as she began to work directly with the tribes.

The tendency to assume all objects inanimate is cultural.

To the cultures to which they belong, some of these items have been embodied with the Spirit: They can’t breathe inside plastic bags. Some need light and others don’t.

“Having them put back where they should have never been taken from to begin with – it’s very difficult for me to rationalize why we have to rationalize that,” said Tina Osceola, director of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office for the Seminole Tribe of Florida. (Photo courtesy of Tina Osceola)

Tina Osceola, director of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, said returning their ancestors is paramount to the current and future health of her people.

“We have an inextricable relationship with our ancestors,” Osceola said. “We're still responsible for taking care of them. And we see that as a reciprocal relationship because they are still taking care of us.”

Besides, she added – she shouldn’t have to rationalize why it matters to put them back where they should have never been taken from to begin with. 

So why is it taking so long?

Smith’s team is not just looking at where the identified belongings and ancestors are, but in every box and tray of the museum’s holdings, in case some ancestors were overlooked. It’s a massive undertaking and requires a special set of skills. An osteologist to identify humans among the fossils, for one.

All of the curational spaces pitch in labor to the effort, Smith said, but she’s the only one dedicated to the effort full-time. More hands are needed to quicken the process.

Recent changes are helping.

Ancestors and belongings with already understood relationships went home quickly, Smith said. But many of them were from farther back in history and the relations weren’t as clear.

These were eventually termed “culturally unidentifiable,” allowing them to be claimed by tribes considered to be “custodians of the area” – those that signed historical treaties.

But the old federal guidelines only required the university to present an inventory of what it considered “culturally unidentifiable.” It was up to the tribes to provide evidence of ownership and claim the belongings.

“That unintentionally puts a heavy burden on tribal nations to figure out what we have and then chase us down,” Smith said. “And that's not really fair.”

The Seminole Tribe of Florida refused to accept the term “culturally unidentifiable.” 

Domonique deBeaubien, the tribe’s collections manager, said it was often used as a convenient term to avoid doing the hard work of proper identification and repatriation.

Now, Smith is working proactively with the tribes in a much more culturally responsive process she said will soon be better reflected in the new federal guidelines.

“Evidence” has been expanded to include things like oral traditions and artistic styles. The museum provides them with as much information as they can and the opportunity to view the items for themselves.

“Then we sit down and we talk about it together,” Smith said. “And so we actually rely very heavily on them informing us on whether or not that's them.”

These same barriers – time and labor – exist on the tribes’ end as well. The Seminole Tribe of Florida only started its repatriation program a little over a decade ago, deBeaubien said. They field repatriation requests and information from across the country.

Both Osceola and deBeaubien said UF now serves as a model for how to work with tribes productively, and hope other institutions follow its example.

“Just because a university or museum is out of compliance doesn’t mean they can’t have a day one where they are,” Osceola said.

Osceola said she understands the process is cumbersome and funding is usually low, but her tribe is ready to work with any institution that wants to do the right thing. They just have to pick up the phone and call.

“Making a grandstand about their noncompliance isn’t going to get our ancestors back,” she said. “But what we ask is that they at least try.”

DeBeaubien said she and others from the tribe went to the university this month to go through the exhibits again and meet with the staff – in part to consult on an upcoming redesign of the museum. 

Osceola wants to see more than just repatriation from museums in the U.S. Misunderstandings of indigenous people extend right through the research and interpretations of their exhibits.

“It’s really easy to put us inside of museum display cases,” she said. “It’s really fun to take a snapshot that puts us in that romantic period of cowboys and Indians and the 1890s. And that’s really damaging.

“We’re here today.”

She’s bracing herself for the yearly November invitations to give presentations on the Seminole people “in costume” – even though she’s no less Seminole in jeans than she is in patchwork.

“Native people today aren’t understood in our own terms,” she said.

Osceola is just one of many fighting for the return of more than 100,000 Native American ancestors currently held by institutions across the U.S.

Because, Osceola said, the ancestors are fighting for them, too.

Katie Hyson was a Report for America Corps Member at WUFT News from 2021 to 2023. She now works for KPBS in San Diego.