Choctaws reburying ancestors unearthed decades ago

By Murray Evans
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (AP) March 2011


The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is leading an effort to rebury 124 bodies believed to be those of their ancestors in what it bills as one of the largest repatriations of its kind.

The natives died five centuries ago, unable to fend off illnesses and diseases they’d never experienced before, like flu, measles and chicken pox. Archeologists exhumed the bodies in excavations along the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi in the 1950s and 1963 – along with various artifacts – but the remains ended up in what amounted to museum storage.

“I believe that our ancestors have handed down responsibilities to us as tribal people and one of those responsibilities is to take care of the dead,” said Terry Cole, the director of the Durant-based tribe’s historical preservation department.

“The belief is that when you started burying people in the ground, they go back to Mother Earth, they become part of Mother Earth. Once these remains were excavated and dug up, they felt like their journey to the other side was disrupted. I was taught by my elders for these ancestors to continue their journey, they need to be put back in the ground.”

Excavation of Indian burial sites was not uncommon during the 20th century. Christina Smith, the cultural resources manager for the Natchez Trace Parkway, says the 124 bodies to be repatriated were found during construction of the 444-mile road the National Park Service operates in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. The route follows a trail once used by Indians and later by settlers.

“The mindset at the time was to excavate for scientific reasons,” Smith said, noting attitudes have changed in subsequent decades.

Indian leaders found such excavations demeaning.

“Folks would want to excavate and dig up Indian people and study them, then take them to a university to study, then take them in cardboard boxes (to museums), then they’d go get some more,” Cole said. “To dig up Indian remains and to display skeletal remains was nothing back in those days. It’s very disturbing. It’s a lack of respect. ... Any other ethnic group, they wouldn’t do that.”

Eventually, Indian leaders found sympathetic ears in Congress, said Francis Pierce-McManamon, a research professor at Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change and a former chief archaeologist of the National Park Service. That led to the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which then-President George H.W. Bush signed into law in 1990.

The law requires federal agencies and museums that receive federal funding to inventory holdings of human remains and funerary objects that are of American Indian descent. Those agencies and museums also must provide written summaries of other cultural items and consult with tribes on efforts to repatriate the bodies and objects.

Even without using DNA testing – which most tribes discourage – the remains can be dated using a variety of methods, including where they were found, what was buried with the bodies and written accounts left by European explorers from centuries past, Pierce-McManamon said.

“There are a number of ways to try and make those connections,” Pierce-McManamon said.

The National Park Service says that, as of September 2009, 38,671 human remains had been determined to be eligible for repatriation by tribes. The agency does not keep records of the number of remains that actually have been repatriated. Cole said the Choctaw Nation’s previous largest repatriation effort involved eight sets of remains.

In 2002, Natchez Trace Parkway officials determined the 124 bodies found during the 1950s and 1963 excavations could have a connection to the Choctaw Nation and a handful of other tribes. Ian Thompson, the Choctaw Nation’s archaeologist, said the remains are thought to be from the Taensa tribe, who lived in that area during the early 1500s.

“All of these remains that we are going to rebury more than likely died of diseases,” Cole said. “Five hundred years ago, Choctaws first encountered the white man and were exposed to those diseases.”

Thompson said the Taensa lived near the Choctaws and for a time lived among the Choctaws, meaning some modern Choctaw people have Taensa lineage. The Taensa also intermixed with the Alabama and the Chitimacha tribes, he said, and other tribes claiming a connection with the remains include the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians in Louisiana, the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and the Alabama Quassarte Tribal Town of Oklahoma.

The remains had been stored at the National Park Services’ Southeast Archaeology Center in Tallahassee, Fla., Smith said.

“The most important thing is to get the people out of the museum,” Smith said. “That’s not a very respectful place to keep people.”

It was determined the Oklahoma Choctaws would take the lead on repatriating the remains, and in 2009, the tribe filed a formal claim to do so. Last month, officials including Choctaw Chief Greg Pyle and Natchez Trace Parkway Superintendent Cameron Sholly met in Durant to sign the documents formally turning over custody of the remains to the tribe.

Even as they celebrate the chance to rebury some of their ancestors, Choctaw officials are careful not to reveal too much about the process.

“There’s been a mindset that Native American graves were treasure. That kind of permeated elements of archaeology and the general public, Thompson said. “We have to be careful of giving out the location of burial sites because people will come dig them up again.”

The new graves will be dug by hand, using shovels but no heavy machinery, out of respect for the dead, Cole said.

“In the spot that we are going to rebury, there’s a big possibility that there are others buried in that same location, so we have to be very careful not to disturb them,” he said. “We don’t want a circus. We don’t just bury the remains, we bury the objects with them when they were excavated.”





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