Editor’s note: This was originally published on Nov. 18, 1995.
The skulls sat for two decades on a shelf at the Elliott Museum. “Actual Indian remains,” a sign read.
The museum said they were the skulls of Guacata Indians, who lived in the Treasure Coast until the 1700s.
Last year, a volunteer doing master's degree work on the bones of American Indians suggested the display might be offensive. The museum agreed, and turned the remains over to the state.
Offended doesn't begin to describe the way American Indians feel about their ancestors' remains being dug up, scattered, stored away like trinkets or put on exhibition like animal carcasses.
In Florida, it was soldiers taking home souvenirs, then pioneers such as Henry Flagler carting off wheelbarrows full of bones to make room for hotels, then developers steering their bulldozers.
To Indians, those acts by white men were, well, savage.
“That's the most extreme example of inhumanity to man,” said Stephen Bowers, the Seminole Tribe of Florida's liaison to the Governor's Council on Indian Affairs.
Now the federal government is trying to make amends.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, passed in November 1990, requires institutions to have completed inventories by last Thursday and submit them to the National Park Service by May.
Indian groups, museums and researchers all say it seemed like a good idea at the time.
But they also say the federal program has turned into a bureaucratic nightmare that threatens stretched budgets and has started a whole new set of turf wars.
So far, an estimated 3,000 museums and 700 tribes are involved nationally. The institutions list about 2,700 remains, 91,000 burial objects, 235 sacred objects, and 16 objects of historical or cultural importance to particular tribes, the park service says.
One researcher estimated the laborious process will end up costing museums, colleges and tribes up to $60 million in work hours and overhead costs -- time and money most of them don't have.
Even an elementary school owning a tool some youngster found on the beach would technically be forced to participate.
“It is impossible for us to comply in a timely fashion,” said Jerald Milanich, a University of Florida professor and a leading scholar of Florida Indian groups. “The cost of this is hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds.”
The Seminoles say keeping track of the hundreds of inventories coming in has been a logistical ordeal. The tribe must also work with its Seminole cousins in Oklahoma, who were forced there in the 1800s.
Billy Cypress, executive director of the Seminoles' Ah-Tha-Thiki Museum in Hollywood, said he's plenty busy already.
“My main job is to build museums,” he said. “That's what we do eight hours a day. Some tribes have the money. They've created whole departments just to deal with repatriation.”
Once an institution has an inventory, it must then turn the items over to the proper American Indian representatives.
Some aren't so ready to give them up. Many scientists believe the remains - Indian or otherwise -- are too valuable as research tools to be stuck back in the ground.
“There is a tremendous amount of scientific information that can be gathered from studying skeletal collections,” said Jerry Kennedy, professor of anthropology at Florida Atlantic University. FAU has about 100 skeletal remains, most prehistoric.
“But I understand the emotional dimensions and political dimensions,” Kennedy said. “We're all sensitive to that issue as well. Hopefully common sense will prevail.”
And most of these materials are small pieces: a single ankle bone, a half of a femur.
“People shouldn't think there are these complete bodies lying around in body bags,” said Bob Carr, executive director of the Archaeological Historical Conservancy in Miami, who has conducted several digs in Palm Beach and Martin counties.
The Seminoles, meanwhile, don't really want remains of their ancestors returned.
“We don't want to be around the dead or be touching the bones or be around any funerary items,” the Seminoles' Steve Bowers said. “It's just bad medicine, that's all.”
He said the tribe might have a holy man conduct a ceremony to rebury them all.
The Miccosukee tribe, cousins to the Seminoles, is also working with museums, said Steve Terry, a non-Indian land resources manager and liaison for the repatriation program. But he said, “Their culture and religion says they can't discuss such issues.”
Even if the Seminoles wanted the bones, they don't want many of the bones being reported in Florida. These aren't their bones.
As many as 100,000 people, in a half-dozen tribes and scores of smaller groups, lived in Florida when the Europeans arrived in the 1500s. By the time the Seminoles came to Florida in the 1700s, those indigenous groups were extinct.
If that wasn't bad enough, many of the bones may belong to historic groups as unrelated to the 1500s Indians as they are to the Seminoles.
“You can find bones that are 500 years old, and I'd venture to say they couldn't be differentiated from bones that are 3,000 years old,” Bob Carr said.
“There's no direct evidence the historic contact groups of southeast Florida descended from the prehistoric peoples,” Carr said. “There could have been many different migrations to southern Florida.”
In Florida, where the state has worked for more than a decade to restore Indian remains, the state's Division of Historical Resources has compiled a report listing thousands of pieces the division possesses that can't be linked to any current Indian group. The state will probably leave them where they are.
FLORIDA INDIAN REMAINS
Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton holds about 100 skeletal remains, most prehistoric.
The Elliott Museum in Stuart held several ancient Indian skulls for two decades before turning them over to the state about a year and a half ago.
The Florida Division of Historical Resources holds thousands of remains and funeral objects not linked to any Indian group. Most are prehistoric. Some were unearthed in Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie and Okeechobee counties. They include:
South Lake Worth (1955): part of one skeleton.
Waldron (1989): jawbone discovered at construction site.
Douglass Beach (1972): parts of four skeletons, recovered from Spanish shipwreck and Indian beach site.
Drondoski (1981): parts of two skeletons found by private homeowner building fish pond.
Unknown (199O): parts of two skeletons turned over by medical examiner.
Taylor Creek (1974): parts of two skeletons, bone awl, drilled alligator tooth, bowl, shark tooth.