by Eric Barton | May 23, 2022

The Fight to Bring Seminole Ancestors Home

Grave robbers stole the bones of Seminoles for decades. Now the tribe is returning the remains of its ancestors, held captive in museums across the country, home to Florida soil.

A series of portraits of notable Seminole Tribe leaders. Illustrations courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Skeletons waited for Ryan Wheeler in the basement of a prestigious Massachusetts institution. It was November 2012 when the Floridian and archaeologist began pulling out rows of economically built wood filing cabinets, as if Ikea existed a century ago. He found bits of pottery and items that were buried with the dead over the course of centuries. They had been unearthed along with thousands of Native American remains that ended up in the institute’s storage. Wheeler knew none of them should be there.

For Wheeler, 53, the finds were equal parts exciting and overwhelming. He had just begun his job as director of the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology, located at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Founded in 1901, the Peabody is a venerable institution and among the nation’s major holders of Native American archaeology, dating back more than 10,000 years. Descending into the recesses of the red-brick building, Wheeler discovered many of the collections hadn’t been properly cataloged. He began the daunting task of sifting through every drawer. The institute’s staff of five, along with temporary workers brought on for the task, pulled out each drawer and digitized all of the contents. It felt, he says, like discovering those burial plots all over again. 

From the beginning, Wheeler noticed a sizable collection of artifacts from Florida. Having grown up in Lauderhill and having earned three degrees from state universities, he was a Florida boy, and so he gravitated to those drawers first. What he found astounded him and would eventually help uncover an archaeological site that no one knew existed, one that may soon have been paved over for good. It would also start a yearslong effort and a circuitous trip to return native Floridians back to their home soil.

The Long Road of Repatriation

Ryan Wheeler, director of the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology.

When Wheeler identified the remains of at least nine Native Americans from Florida in his Massachusetts institute, the first thing he did was home in on a map of where the bodies had been dug up. It was fortuitous that Wheeler was looking at this map, because he was one of only a handful of people in the world who would understand its significance.

Before coming to the Peabody, Wheeler had been the official archaeologist for the state of Florida, a job he started in 2004. In that role, he often oversaw discoveries of unmarked gravesites uncovered during construction projects. He says he didn’t know every archaeological dig site in the state, but just about. As he suspected, the site on the map at the Peabody had not been officially recorded.

Wheeler quickly moved to protect the location. He filed paperwork with the state of Florida in December 2012 that would help keep the site from immediate development. 

It would take years more to determine what should happen to the Native Americans next. That’s in part because of the sheer breadth of the project Wheeler had taken on. To date, the Peabody has returned the remains of 2,004 people to Native American tribes from storage, including a large joint repatriation with Harvard University. There are another 150 ancestors in whose case all paperwork has been completed and are awaiting repatriation, and there are 98 that are labeled “culturally unidentified,” essentially meaning nobody has yet to determine where they should be returned.

On July 20, 2018, Wheeler wrote to the Seminoles. He told them he had big news: He might have found some of their ancestors.

Having worked with the Seminoles many times over the years, Wheeler knew the tribe had spent a generation tracking down and reburying stolen ancestors, a practice known as repatriation. Tina Osceola oversees the program for the Seminoles. There’s little joy in the work, she says. Osceola compares it to a scene she often witnessed in her former job as a tribal judge. 

The only reward we get out of doing this work is stopping it from happening again.
— Tina Osceola

After a conviction, family members of victims would often become emotional— tears of joy mixed with pain. 

“Honestly? I don’t think there’s any part of it that makes me happy, because it’s so incredibly tragic,” Osceola, 54, says of repatriation. “The only reward we get out of doing this work is stopping it from happening again.”

The Seminoles have brought home thousands of their ancestors from museums all over the country. It’s rare for anyone to know the identities of the bodies, since the grave robbers didn’t always record or know who they were unearthing. The Seminoles have been on the hunt over the years for several high-profile ancestors, including Chief Osceola, the tribal leader from the 1800s. A surgeon serving in the Florida militia reportedly removed Osceola’s head after his death in 1838 and absconded with it. Tina Osceola says the tribe’s search for the skull has resulted in dead ends and stories that seem like myths, like the one that claims the Chief’s head burned in a fire. “Whenever we want something back, we find out it was burned in a fire,” says Tina Osceola. While she isn’t sure she’s related to the legendary tribal leader, she still takes the search personally.

Tina Osceola, supervisor of the repatriation program for the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

 There have been historical documents that recorded the identities of the remains in two or three of the repatriations, Osceola says. In those instances, her office reached out to the families to see if they wished to take part in a reburial, but none did. It was simply too shocking for them to learn that their ancestors had been stored in the depths of a museum for so many years. She declined to identify them by name, out of respect for the families. “In our culture, this is unnatural,” Osceola says with a grievous tone. “It’s sad to know this is a relative of yours. You didn’t even know they were taken.”

Osceola grew up in Naples and is the granddaughter of Cory Osceola, who was the leader of the Independent Seminoles. The Independent Seminoles is a group that was skeptical of the U.S. government’s efforts to urge Native Americans to join tribes, fearing it was all just another trick by colonialists. Her grandfather had passed away by the time Tina Osceola joined the Seminoles in 1983, which she did because she couldn’t afford college without scholarships available to tribal members. Osceola got a political science degree from Rollins College and a master’s in public administration from Nova Southeastern University. In 2015, she was among the first judges in new courts set up by the Seminoles. During the pandemic in 2020, the Seminoles went on lockdown, suspending trials, and Osceola began rethinking what she wanted to do with her life. The lead position in the tribe’s repatriation office opened up, and Osceola took over in August 2021. 

When her office got the call from Wheeler about the Seminoles in Massachusetts, it triggered a lengthy process to repatriate them. It also meant trying to figure out how they had gotten there in the first place. At the time, remnants from the grave robbing in Orlando were spread out among nine or ten drawers in the basement of the Peabody. The drawers held an illustrated journal which listed separate sections of bays and drawers that held skeletons. The journal also documented how the collection had gotten to Massachusetts.

The story begins in the spring of 1919 when a man from Haverhill, Massachusetts, named Fred Luce contracted the Spanish influenza during the last global pandemic. Luce worked in the Victory Destroyer naval shipyard during World War I and nearly died from the flu. He took his family to Florida in October of 1919 while he recuperated. Luce and his sons had been amateur archaeologists back home, and so they set out to find spots to dig near their temporary home.

A depiction of Seminole indian graves in the Everglades. Image courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

They discovered an Indian mound near the shores of Lake Tibet southwest of Orlando and started digging. A village once stood on what must have been a scenic rise overlooking the lake, knobby cypress and cabbage palms draped in Spanish moss along its banks. The Luces collected skeletons and thousands of artifacts, taking them home when they returned to Massachusetts. Eventually they turned over their finds to a local museum, which in turn gave them to the Peabody. 

These are among tens of thousands of Native American remains held in museums across the country for centuries. Often, the reason for this is quite simply racism.

When Grave Robbing Became a Profession

Back in the 1800s, xenophobes thought they could use science to justify the subjugation of Black and Native American people. These pseudo-scientists hoped that by measuring skulls they could find some proof to determine that white people were smarter than people of other races. 

Pamela Geller, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Miami.

To collect the skulls, they hired grave robbers. They dug up cemeteries, sites of Civil War battles, and sacred Native American burial mounds dating back millennia. They were called resurrectionists, and they pockmarked the country with their thievery. They hauled skeletons into museums and research institutions, like macabre bounty hunters.  

When Pamela Geller started as an anthropology student in the 1990s at the University of Pennsylvania, skulls looked down on her from inside glass cabinets in her classrooms. As a graduate student, Geller took inventory of the skulls in the university’s collections and, in some cases, set out to return them to their people. 

Geller, now an associate professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Miami, contacted several tribes to let them know some of the skulls at the University of Pennsylvania came from their ancestors. The Seminoles were one of several tribes who came to the university to collect their ancestors, a moment Geller, 48, says was a mix of difficult emotions. Sometimes the visits went well. Michigan’s Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians even invited Geller and others to participate in a Calumet, or a pipe ceremony where sage is burned to help ancestors on their overdue journey to the afterlife.

But another group, “they just yelled at us, and rightfully so, because the ancestors were, well...” Geller says, trailing off. “Just to work with the tribes, it was pretty profound.” Being Jewish, Geller says she can’t help but think about the similarities to the genocide her people suffered and what happened to the Native Americans. “It’s emotional. I don’t know how you can’t be emotional about this. I think it makes your science better to see the larger background.”

It’s not always so easy for the Seminoles to get their ancestors back. Not all institutions are as forthcoming as the University of Pennsylvania and the Peabody. Among the museums the Seminoles say have been especially difficult is one of our nation’s most esteemed: the Smithsonian Institution.

It's emotional. I don't know how you can't be emotional about this. I think it makes your science better to see the larger background.
— Pamela Geller

In its defense, the Smithsonian points to following the law closely, says Bill Billeck, program manager of the Smithsonian’s Repatriation Office. Federal law requires museums to return the bones if a tribe can prove to be “culturally affiliated” to the remains.

While the Seminoles have asked for the remains of about 1,500 native Florida people from the Smithsonian, it may be difficult to prove that cultural affiliation, according to Billeck, noting that the Seminoles began migrating to Florida in the 1700s, while many of the people taken from Florida gravesites date back thousands of years. Most of the tribes that
preceded the Seminoles in Florida have been lost to history. If the Seminoles fail to prove cultural affiliation, the tribe can still attempt to claim its ancestors under the museum’s “culturally unaffiliated policy.”

To date, Billeck says his office has offered to Native American tribes the remains of about 6,600 people and 220,000 funerary objects. As the Seminoles’ request is evaluated, Billeck says the remains from Florida will be kept in a Maryland facility. 

Bill Billeck, program manager of the Smithsonian's Repatriation Office.

“I have a lot of respect for native people, and I really value working with them. I hope eventually the Seminole will be pleased with the result [of their requests], but I know they’re not happy with us right now, because we’re not returning things immediately,” Billeck says.

For Osceola, that argument is nonsensical, since all people native to North America share a lineage. After a decade of refusals by the Smithsonian, her office started a hashtag that took off on social media: #NoMoreStolenAncestors. She hopes the attention puts pressure on museums to understand how her people see it, that ancestors who aren’t at rest poison the generations that follow. 

“There’s an inextricable relationship between ancestors and their descendants, and that relationship doesn’t stop beyond someone’s death,” Osceola says. “When their remains are being stored in cabinets, they’ve been separated from the natural world that they were supposed to be in. That’s against every rule of law and the creator’s law for us. If our ancestors aren’t healthy, neither are we.”

For the bones found in the Peabody’s basement, the process to return them to where they were stolen should have been simple. Then, the pandemic struck.

Correcting a Century-Old Wrong

Back in Massachusetts, when Wheeler first found the skeletons of ancient Floridians in the basement of his museum, the piece of land where they had been unearthed was getting ready for its next life. 

The site is part of an 18-acre tract in the Bay Hill area of Orlando. A company called Unicorp National Developments, Inc. planned to build luxury homes costing up to $2 million. They would call it Carmel by the Lake.

Prominent members of the Seminole Tribe in Washington, D.C., following a meeting with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Photography courtesy of the Smithsonian Tribe of Florida.

But because Wheeler happened upon those skeletons and recorded the burial site, the developers had no choice but to allow archaeologists to conduct a dig. The state of Florida hired a Gainesville-based company called Search, Inc. to handle the excavation. The site is now called the Macey Mound. The team of archaeologists began digging up remains and relocating them to a spot elsewhere on the property that wouldn’t be disturbed by the development. 

The Seminoles decided their ancestors found in Massachusetts would end up there, too. But by then, it was 2020, and the pandemic struck. The Seminoles put their reservations on lockdown until February of this year and halted out-of-state travel for tribal employees.

Normally, members of Osceola’s staff would have gone to get the remains. One of them is Domonique deBeaubien, who carries the title of collections manager for the tribe and chairs its repatriation committee. While in college, deBeaubien did field work digging in an ancient castle moat in southwest England and got hooked on the field of bioarchaeology, the study of animals and humans dug up from archaeological sites. She’s worked for the Seminoles for a decade, and, in that time, has seen the country’s attitude change toward repatriation, thanks largely to a younger generation that wants to correct a wrong. Often, it’s deBeaubien who makes first contact with a museum that’s keeping Seminole remains, and it’s often deBeaubien who transports them home. That regularly means flying somewhere, renting a U-Haul and driving back. Transporting objects between museums typically requires that artifacts remain in the custody of an employee at all times, and, with Seminole ancestors, it’s even more important that they are never alone. That means deBeaubien regularly travels with another staff member so they can be sure the bones are never alone, even taking them into their hotel rooms at night. “I mean, it’s definitely unusual,” she says, “but it’s something you have to do.”

While deBeaubien would have normally flown to Massachusetts to retrieve the bones from the Peabody, the tribe’s COVID-19 lockdown meant that wasn’t possible. But Wheeler didn’t think it was right to delay returning the Seminole remains any longer, so his institute agreed to assist in the transport. He says the process of repatriation is a difficult one. “It is emotional. It requires some empathy, and it’s definitely work that has to be done with the heart, if you’re going to do it right.”

To start the journey home for the Seminoles, Wheeler says escorts brought the bones from Massachusetts to the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. In 2019, the Bruce Museum received an email from the federal government warning that the museum was out of compliance with federal law. The museum had in its possession Native American bones that it needed to return to tribes, and, if it didn’t, the Bruce would face significant fines.

It's definitely work that has to be done with the heart, if you're going to do it right.
— Ryan Wheeler

The warning surprised Kirsten Reinhardt, registrar at the time for the Bruce, who didn’t know the museum had any remains that needed to be returned. She scoured the museum’s records and discovered the remains of four Native Americans. One of them had been collected by Wilbur Smith, an animal control officer and amateur scientist from Norwalk, Connecticut. During a vacation to Florida in 1937, Smith unearthed Native American shell mounds along the coast and, at some point during the trip, acquired an ancient skull that he brought home as if it was a vacationer’s souvenir. He gave the skull to the Bruce Museum, which displayed it in its “Indian Room.”

When Reinhardt found the skull in storage decades later, she made contact with the Seminoles and started the process of repatriation. After the bones from the Peabody arrived by courier, Reinhardt says the Bruce Museum’s COO and her husband drove the bones to Pennsylvania, where they met an archaeologist from Search, Inc. who had worked on the Macey Mound site, and she took both sets of remains the rest of the way to Orlando. 

A series of portraits of notable Seminole Tribe leaders. Illustrations courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

What happened to the bones from there isn’t something the Seminoles like to discuss with outsiders. They fear more grave robbers and say it’s a process sacred to the tribe. Where they ended up, whether there’s a marker there—those are things nobody outside the tribe should know. But Osceola will say this: The remains were returned to Florida soil.

The process often reminds Osceola of something her grandmother said to her before she left for college: “Don’t forget where you come from.” At the time, she thought it was a warning about remembering the directions to drive back home. Now, it’s something she thinks about regularly, the idea that she needs to preserve the memory of the people who came before her. “I know there are ancestors who fought to survive, to live this life that I’m living right now,” she says. “To think those ancestors are sitting on a shelf in some dusty room. They’re not being kept with any care. There’s no ceremony. They’re not with their people or where they come from.”

While the Seminoles don’t allow outsiders to witness the reburials, in 2015, a reporter from The Seminole Tribune, the tribe’s newspaper, documented the return of 21 skulls. They were the ones that Geller helped repatriate from the University of Pennsylvania. The skulls included three children, two women and 16 men collected at battlefields from the Seminole Wars. Willie Johns, the chief justice of Tribal Court before he passed away in 2020, brought the skulls to their final resting spot. He carried them in a cardboard box wrapped in white burial cloth. The skulls were lowered into a hole dug by a backhoe into the mucky soil near Lake Okeechobee.

During a eulogy before a small crowd, Johns contemplated the words he would use if he had the chance to speak to the ancestors he was burying. “I would say, ‘Welcome home. Welcome home. And, oh, by the way, did you hear? We won. Your people are still here in Florida. And they are doing well.’”