OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. - Coalitions for repatriation will help deal with issues facing all tribes.
Experts from across Indian country were invited by the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations to the first national Native American Repatriation Summit here June 8 and 9. Panelists discussed ways to build coalitions, the National Historic Preservation Act and how to work with various federal agencies to solve issues of repatriation.
Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby said the hope was that tribes could form coalitions and deal with issues arising out of repatriation of Native American remains and sacred objects.
"We decide those things that are most important for us to deal with, come to some conclusions and then we develop our effort to work together toward meeting our objectives. Hopefully what will come out of this is a continuing effort on the part of the tribes to work together on issues that are cross-cutting and those areas where there is conflict." He added this was the first in a number of sessions in which the tribes will come together.
For tribes in Oklahoma, repatriation efforts open old wounds. "We were removed from our original homelands and we came to Indian Territory," Anoatubby explained. "The history of burials is closer to us here. We know about it, we left markers; we know where our people are buried for the most part.
"It's the original homeland that is our greater problem. When we left, those burials weren't marked, in many cases they were desecrated, the remains and the burial objects removed. Some have been put in museums, some in private collections. That is where our problems are," the governor said.
"In many states they aren't even treated as human remains. In some states they are treated as artifacts, the laws between the two are very different, that is a big concern."
Anoatubby said the Chickasaw were removed from an area so it could be developed. As roads and houses are built, it would be impossible not to find remains, he said.
"It is very difficult to solve these problems alone." Anoatubby continued. "Other tribes also have similar issues, so it was our thought that if we got the tribes together and started talking about it, maybe we could come up with some solutions.
"Not a single tribe or individual on this earth that doesn't depend on someone else or some other entity. No man is an is an island and no tribe is an island."
Anoatubby said that in going back to the tribe's past, the tribe gains strength for the future. "You have to know who you are before you can go forward, you have to have an identity."
Ideas and solutions flowed freely throughout the two-day summit and new ideas that are working for tribes were explained during panel discussions and sometimes even during breaks, spreading the information as far as possible.
Many tribes have been working with the U.S. Forest Service, but Kenneth Carleton, tribal archaeologist for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw, said tribes in the Southeast found a new and unexpected ally in the National Guard.
"We feel, particularly after a recent meeting, that what we see happening is that the National Guard Bureau in Washington is very supportive of this and they paid for our last workshop and are paying for two more. They are using our example as a model for guard-tribal relations throughout the country."
The Army environmental offices have been funding Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) projects with the tribes in the Southeast and have set aside ground for a cemetery for any remains area tribes would like to bury.
Carleton stressed that the land has been set aside and agreements have been signed to make sure that the cemetery will always be cared for. Remote-sensing devices are in place and military police are undergoing sensitivity training to understand how to deal with possible desecration issues. They have even gone so far as to hold a mock looting to teach guard personnel how to properly deal with people and what they need to watch for, Carleton said.
How did all this cooperation between tribes and the National Guard come about?
"Our work with the Louisiana National Guard has been the single most pleasant governmental experience anyone of us has had, Carleton explained. "Most tribes are looking toward the Park Service to set aside land for this. We don't need the Park Service.
"Mike Tarpley, he is a captain in the Louisiana National Guard, we had one of our first meetings about four years ago and the guard was invited as a courtesy more than anything else. Mike sat there, listened to what we said and went home. He said he believed that the National Guard was as responsible for complying with the laws as anybody else. He got with Bill Fay in Biloxi and they really got the ball rolling.
"It started out as a contingency plan and soon it was expanded to Mississippi and Alabama."
Grace Slaughter, who has been working with Carleton, added that they gathered federal tribes now in Louisiana and federal tribes in adjoining states with original ties with Louisiana to "work together and develop Memorandums of Understanding, scopes of work with projects, policies in dealing with human remains."
Getting in the door of the museums has only been the first step for tribal cultural departments and one very large problem grew from that first step - finding a place to bury remains of ancestors.
Many tribes don't have large land bases and as they recover remains, they have no place to bury them. That is one reason many attending the summit found the agreements made between the National Guard and Southeastern tribes of particular interest, in particular the burial ground.
Lamont Laird of the Eastern Shawnee of Oklahoma has been working on repatriation with the University of Kentucky. "We have been involved with NAGPRA since 1993 and we still haven't figured it out, Laird said. "I don't claim to be an expert. A few months ago, the Shawnee people had approached the Five Civilized Tribes with a request to join in a coalition with us to form a joint repatriation of remains in the University of Kentucky.
"Our folks were all over a big chunk of North America, so we aren't like some tribes who talk about repatriation close to home. The University of Kentucky had notified various tribes regarding a collection of human remains they have accumulated over the years ... to explore ... repatriation."
The news was shocking, Laird said, explaining that during the Depression Era of the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration performed an archeological survey throughout Kentucky and other areas in the south and "they excavated close to 4,400 remains."
The problem for Laird and other tribes involved in the repatriation effort is where to put that many ancestors.
"Our first, primary responsibility in this process is to bury these people," Laird said.
Dale Ann Frye Sherman, NAGPRA coordinator for the Yurok Tribe in California, said the National Guard idea was very innovative. "It was an answer without climbing the mountain; it was going around the mountain. I can see it used around the nation.
"I liked it because it wasn't the same thing of batting your head against 'No! No! No!' ... we have all of these ancestors that need to come home and need to be reburied, but we don't have land bases. If we do, they often aren't appropriate places to rebury. They found a way to work around the problem."
Sherman, recently named as the National Congress of American Indians NAGPRA coordinator, said the situation is ironic. "They came along and they took them out of the ground, and now we are trying to put them back and we don't have any ground to put them in.
"The irony of it is almost staggering. Many small tribes are scrambling to find the land now.
"What I think is great about this is that it is so doable. It is the one thing that can unite the tribes across the United States. An issue that all of us believe in so much - bringing home the ancestors to our communities."