Seven tribes are asking an Alabama university to return the remains of nearly 6,000 people excavated over the years from what once was one of the largest Native American settlements in North America.
The Oklahoma-based Muscogee Nation, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and five other tribes have filed a petition under a federal law for the return of 5,982 "human remains of our ancestors" and funerary objects now held by the University of Alabama and its Moundville Archaeological Park.
"These are human beings. We consider them to be our grandparents," Raelynn Butler, the Muscogee Nation's historic and cultural preservation manager, said in an interview.
Butler said tribes are seeking the return so the remains can be reburied with the funerary objects. In a Friday letter to tribal officials, James T. Dalton, Executive Vice President and Provost of the University of Alabama said that the university hopes to work with the tribes.
The Alabama site, simply known as Moundville because of the large earthen mounds constructed there, once housed what was believed to be a large and thriving settlement.
While its ancient name is unknown, the city was founded around 1120 and at its peak was one of the largest Native American settlements in North America, according to the university. The site included a great plaza and 26 earthen mounds. It later fell into decline, although it was used as a ceremonial site and burial ground. It was largely abandoned by the 1500s.
The site and museum run by the University of Alabama is now a regular stop for elementary school students on field trips.
Tens of thousands of indigenous peoples, including the Muscogee Nation, were forceably removed from their ancestral homelands by the U.S. government between 1830 and 1850 during the devastating Trail of Tears.
Muskogee Nation officials came to Alabama this week to meet with university representatives and deliver a letter to the governor.
"The remains held by the University were left behind when our ancestors were forced from our ancestral homes in the Southeastern United States and into other states through the nene estvmerkv or 'road of misery' also known as the "Trail of Tears," David W. Hill, Principal Chief of the Muscogee Nation and Chief Gary Batton wrote in letters to Gov. Kay Ivey.
"While no one can change the past, it is our hope that you will help encourage others to do what is right in the present," they added.
The 1990 federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires federally funded institutions, such as universities, to return Native American remains and cultural items to lineal descendants, Indian Tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations. However, the return has been slow to happen.
While nearly 83,000 remains in the U.S. had been returned to descendants, the National Park Service indicates remains of about 116,000 Native Americans are still held by institutions around the country. Many of them have not been linked to a particular tribe — a designation called "culturally affiliated" — that allows return.
The settlement at Moundville predates the modern tribes, but the seven tribes argue they are linked by lineage and language. Tribal officials are asking the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Review Committee to declare the site culturally affiliated with the tribes to pave the way for the return of the remains. A hearing is scheduled for next week.
"We still have a lot of work to do in the Southeast. Only 26% of remains of ancestors that have been dug up or excavated from the Southeastern states have been returned or repatriated to tribes through the NAGPR process," Butler said.
Dalton said the University of Alabama will provide more suggestions on the "most productive and efficient manner to address the pending joint request."
"It is our hope that, in joining with the tribes in consultation, all parties can reaffirm their shared goals of honoring and preserving the cultural heritage of the Moundville civilization," Dalton wrote.
The tribe has been seeking the return of the remains and objects taken from Moundville since 2018 and have "thus far been unsuccessful in obtaining rightful return," they wrote.
"We are hopeful the university does the right thing. We are hopeful the state urges the university to do the right thing," Muskogee Creek ambassador Jonodev O. Chaudhuri said.