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A spirit that is not afraid

Auburn begins efforts to return cultural artifacts, remains

<p>Native American artifacts recovered from the East Alabama area.</p>

Native American artifacts recovered from the East Alabama area.

Currently, Auburn University holds the nation's 29th-largest collection of unrepatriated Native American human remains within it's anthropology department. The 768 remains and more than 50,000 objects of cultural significance await return to their associated tribes.

Spearheading the effort is Michael Walters, 31, the current Native American Graves and Repatriation Act Coordinator for Auburn University. However, Walters inherited a complex legacy marred by common characteristics associated with government agency and tribal relationships.

Although this legacy dates back to when European settlers first colonized North and South America, the roots of the current situation on The Plains began at the start of the 20th century. Aleš Hrdlička, a Czech American anthropologist, founded a branch of anthropology in 1918 dubbed physical anthropology. The field has evolved since its founding, but the primary focus of its early work concerned classifying and recording the physical differences between the various races. These differences served as biological proof of the superiority of the "white race" until disproven by modern scientific practices.

In a lecture given to American University in 1921, Hrdlička said that “the white man really will have a supremacy over an inferior race; a man so much more effective will be by nature’s laws alone, as he already is today, the lord of the one below him,” referring to Black people.

Early physical anthropology paired well with the eugenics movement that gained momentum in the 1930s and 1940s. Eugenics supported controlling human genetics through selective breeding, sterilization and extermination. However, eugenic practices often targeted marginalized groups such as the mentally disabled, people of color or the poor.

Buck vs. Bell, a Supreme Court case from 1927, upheld the Virginia Sterilization Act of 1924 and permitted sterilizing people the state deemed unfit.

In this 8 to 1 majority opinion, Justice Oliver Holmes Jr. wrote, “It is better for all the world if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”

Between the 1890s and 1960s, there was a nearly insatiable appetite for Native American bodies to examine under the auspices of archaeology, anthropology and sociology. However, this research fed a pseudo-scientific demand to prove eugenic and early physical anthropological theories.

According to the Federal Register, federal institutions, such as universities and museums, amassed more than 200,000 Native American human remains by the 1990s through various collection methods. Some of these methods included excavations by professional scientists, but many were done by archeological enthusiasts.

The Alabama Archeological Society, founded in 1954 in Decatur, Alabama, started as a group of amateur archeologists and collectors funded by member dues and public donations. The society’s monthly meetings often featured guest speakers, such as University of Alabama professor Dr. Carl Sensenig, who, according to the group’s April 1956 newsletter, gave a lecture titled “The Story of Evolution” on May 4, 1956.

Dr. Sensenig was a member of the American Association of Physical Anthropology and, according to the University of Alabama's website, a physical anthropologist working at the Mound State Monument Museum in Moundville, Alabama, under the directorship of Dr. David DeJarnette.

In 1933, the Tennessee Valley Authority began building three hydroelectrical dams on the Tennessee River, a project that flooded millions of acres in the valley. DeJarnette led archeological salvage efforts on the Alabama side.

The Tennessee Valley Authority possesses 3,500 unrepatriated Native American remains, the 8th largest collection in the country.

DeJarnette, a founding member of the AAS, taught as an associate professor in the anthropology department at the University of Alabama from 1958 until his retirement in 1976. However, he also led extensive excavations into the burial sites of a Mississippian culturally affiliated collective, which built the famous
mounds of Moundville, Alabama.

The University of Alabama possesses 2,900 unrepatriated Native American remains or the 10th largest collection in the country. At its peak, the university reported 13,600 remains to the federal government in the 1990s but capitulated to tribal demands in 2021 and made more than 10,000 remains available for repatriation. NAGPRA legally obligated the university to begin repatriation in 1990.

One of DeJarnette’s legacies, according to the University of Alabama's website, was his use of archeological field schools. Field schools allow students in archeology to get firsthand experience on archeological dig sites while being taught the techniques of their craft in real-time.

Most of Auburn University’s collection of Native American remains and artifacts come from field schools conducted by Dr. John Cottier, who started teaching in 1976 and taught until he died in 2015. However, in the 1960s, before graduating from Auburn in 1964 with bachelor's degrees in history and sociology, Cottier joined the East Alabama chapter of the AAS.

“It was a very different time for archeology,” Walters said. There wasn’t a lot of consultation with descendant communities.”

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NAGPRA changed how archeology handles the discovery of Native American artifacts and remains.
The law requires archeologists to consult with tribal descendants before intentionally excavating sites and reporting the unintentional discovery of remains. The changes, however, don’t undo centuries of mismanagement.

“Depending on the state of the collection, one challenge is not knowing what we have,” Walters said. “Because part of NAGPRA is, we need to know what we have so we can have that discussion and conversation with tribes.”

Walters believes that building relationships with descendant tribes can begin to repair the damages of the past.

“We have the science, but they have the cultural knowledge. There may be something that is a funeral object or a sacred object. I don’t know that. They would,” Walters said.

The relationships could advance museum practices and are an opportunity to "think creatively". Walters says that museums like to house items in specific ways but a realtionship with a tribe can allow the tribe to provide guidance on if those protocols are problematic or harmful to the object.

Auburn possesses the same legal requirements to repatriate remains and artifacts as all federally funded institutions. However, the university still needs to return 768 ancestors and 50,000 objects of cultural significance in the 30 years since NAGPRA became law.

Walters, who began working in his current role six months ago, filed Auburn’s second Notice of Inventory Completion on Feb. 15, 2023. The notice announces that human remains are available for return to Native American tribes nationwide, and NAGPRA has required it for all federally funded institutions since 1990. Auburn published its first notice in 2020.

“This is a long process with historical generational trauma,” Walters said. “I agree this should have been done, but to do it fully right, it just takes time to build those relationships and make sure we do repatriation correctly.”

Ethan Flynn | Campus News Editor

Ethan Flynn, sophomore in journalism and finance, is the campus editor at The Auburn Plainsman. He has been with The Plainsman since Fall, 2022.

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