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Choctaw warrior, once on museum display, reburied

TUSKAHOMA, Okla. ? A Choctaw warrior, whose bones were on display for nearly 50 years at a Bartlesville museum, has been reburied by the Choctaw Nation.

The warrior is believed to have fought alongside Chief Pushmataha and to have spent his last days on the Trail of Tears.

The unidentified man was unearthed accidentally in 1939 and his remains were sent to the University of Oklahoma. His bones were then given to the Woolaroc Museum where they were displayed until 1987. Even though the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was enacted in 1990, the tribe didn't know about the warrior's remains until a year ago when Terry Cole of the tribal Cultural Resources Department was contacted.

Because of items originally found with the body, it was determined he was a warrior believed to have fought alongside Chief Pushmataha. He was in his 40s when he and other members of the Choctaw tribe were removed and sent along the Trail of Tears. The warrior died in 1839 and originally was buried in southeastern Oklahoma.

The Choctaw Nation was fortunate to have a burial site ready to receive remains of ancestors returned following enactment of NAGPRA. Cole said many smaller tribes have a difficult time trying to find places to rebury their dead.

One problem has arisen since NAGPRA because many tribes, like the Choctaw, were unsure of how their ancestors buried their dead.

"We never intended to rebury our people," Cole said. "So when the time came we wondered 'What do we do?'"

Part of this puzzle was solved by working with tribal elders in Mississippi where the tribe lived before the removal to Indian Territory. Months of planning and attention to detail went into a process of learning old ceremonies to honor the long dead warrior.

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But even then, Cole said he knew that there probably wasn't really a ceremony that covered a "reburial."

So the Choctaw man was reburied with all of the tradition and respect the tribe could piece together from its history. Those involved are pleased the first of many ancestors has "come home."

Cole said this is not the last reburial since the Choctaw have found remains of their ancestors stored all over the country as well as in Europe.

The unknown warrior was buried in a five-acre tribal plot set aside for reburial of the ancestors dug up in various areas.

The nation's Cultural Resources Department worked hard to make sure the second burial of ancestors will be permanent and is done using the correct ceremonies and prayers, Cole said.

In a 2001 interview, he told Indian Country Today that although the Choctaw are proud to be able to rebury ancestors in the proper way, the tribe has not publicized the ceremonies for fear of grave robbers seeking artifacts.

The nation also made sure the ceremonies remained off limits to cameras and recording devices.

Cole said he has asked reporters not to give specifics about items reburied with individuals like the warrior.