MVSKOKE RESERVATION- A recently-passed tribal resolution will allow the Muscogee (Creek) Nation to utilize 16 acres of federal lands in Alabama as a reinterment site for ancestral remains and objects. Tribal Resolution 23-115 passed unanimously during the recent regular session of the MCN National Council on Nov 7.
The resolution authorizes MCN Principal Chief Hill to execute a grant of permanent easement with the landowner to establish the reinterment cemetery. The easement contains limited waivers of sovereign immunity. The MCN Department of Culture and Humanities will exercise oversight of the reinterment cemetery.
During discussion of TR 23-115 at the Nov. 1 LNC subcommittee meeting, MCN Acting Secretary of Cultural and Historic Preservation Raelynn Butler commented that one of the major needs of doing this work is land. Butler stated,
“Trying to rebury, as everybody knows, we don’t have lands in the homeland and we want to rebury these ancestors close to where they were dug up. This federal agency has quite a large collection. This land, we would be able to bury more than 2,000 ancestors, which is very much needed. We have been waiting for this agency to help make these lands available. We hope we didn’t have to have such a legal process or agreement like this. It’s basically a 99 year easement on this land, but it makes us the primary care holder and responsible party of anything that happens on this land in the future.”
The MCN has been working with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) since its passing in 1990. The law established a means for returning American Indian cultural items and human remains in the collections of museums and federal agencies to lineal descendants and culturally-affiliated tribes.
Butler further commented during the LNC meeting that the MCN, specifically the Department of Cultural and Historic Preservation, has worked with the landmark legislation, stating, “…we have helped repatriate more than 1,000 of our ancestors that were excavated in our homelands in the last 20 years that the nation has done NAGPRA work. Last week we helped rebury 189 of our ancestors. That’s the most we’ve ever done and it was very challenging, emotional, but every part of our staff and team helped us carry that on.”
In a report published by Propublica, “The Repatriation Project” found that over 100,000 American Indian ancestors still remain in museums 33 years after the act’s passing. The intent of NAGPRA was to offer a process for the reclamation of ancestors and items of cultural patrimony found in collections in museums, universities, and federal agencies. However, the system can be faulty, with work taking decades to fulfill its purpose.
Institutions can delay the process from the very start, citing issues like inventory problems or the inability to establish cultural lineage. The latter of which is often used regarding pre-contact remains and items. Tribes can also struggle to find the appropriate land to rebury their ancestors, especially when the remains and items number in the 100s. Establishing a specific site for reinterment in the ancestral lands that is controlled by the MCN is a way to facilitate this process.
Because of the threat of looting, security of the site is a foremost concern. The legislation was crafted in such a way to reflect this. From her LNC subcommittee discussion, Butler explained, “Security will be very important and that’s why we haven’t stated where this is going to be in the legislation and it’s held confidentially between us and that federal agency…there would be measures in place so that someone with a shovel would never be able to access those burials. Also, this is a fenced property, so there would be good security enforcement and cameras in the area… We’re not going to have any kind of above ground monuments or anything to designate this as a cemetery that the public may think of as that way. ”
Speaking directly to Mvskoke Media, Butler commented, “Confidentiality is important for NAGPRA work, mainly because our Ancestors and their belongings need to be protected. They were already disturbed and their lifecycle interrupted when they were excavated by archaeologists in the past and we do not want the public to know where or when we rebury them, they could be looted or exploited again, which is an unthinkable situation… The federal agency and MCN have agreed to not to make any statements to the press regarding the permanent easement. All I will say is that it is something that has been in the works for more than a decade and we are grateful the legislation passed.”
To learn more about NAGPRA, and the process of returning artifacts and remains to the tribes they originate from, visit https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nagpra/index.htm. Information on law, and enforcement, as well as updates on NAGPRA efforts can be found there.