Hundreds of years ago, they lived and died on the vast, open plains of the Midwest. But today the remains of more than 3,000 Native Americans are stored in boxes, packed away like forgotten objects, inside a concrete warehouse on Rock Quarry Road.
The assortment of bones and funerary objects were unearthed more than a decade ago during road-building operations conducted by the Missouri Department of Transportation. The fact that the remains have yet to be returned to their tribal descendants for a proper burial is an affront to many Native Americans, says Don Hart, a Cherokee who owns Best of the West, a downtown shop that sells Native American artifacts.
“We live all of our life to be buried,” Hart says. “The life we spend here is nothing compared to spiritual life.”
In June 2002, the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma sued the transportation department and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources for the handling of the remains, which are stored at the Museum Support Center, an extension of MU’s Museum of Archaeology.
The suit claims the state agencies violated federal law by failing to notify tribal representatives that Native American remains had been unearthed.
Although MU is not a defendant in the case, an affidavit filed in federal court in Kansas City suggested that the remains stored at the support center were, at times, handled with little understanding of their importance to Native Americans.
“I personally visited and witnessed the Native American remains in the custody and control of MoDOT and the University of Missouri facility and videotaped the event,” wrote Richard Black, Sac and Fox repatriation agent for the state. “The remains were kept in cardboard boxes without any protection or climate control and stored in inappropriate containers such as rat poison boxes and pesticide boxes.”
Those conditions no longer exist, says Clyde Wilson, associate curator of the center’s Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, program.
“There was a time that was true,” Wilson says, “but that museum we have is state of the art.”
Wilson’s job is to negotiate the repatriation of Native American remains with tribal groups such as the Sac and Fox Nation. Since November 1990, repatriation has been regulated by the NAGPRA — which, among other things, requires that those in possession of unearthed Native American remains, such as museums and government agencies, compile complete inventories and then work with tribal representatives to determine the appropriate repatriation to direct descendants or a “culturally affiliated” tribe.
Spokespersons for the DNR and the transportation department say the state has handled the remains in accordance with the law. According to the transportation department’s Jim Coleman, determining the cultural origins of the remains is difficult because many of them predate modern tribes.
“From MoDOT’s perspective, we followed exactly what we’re supposed to do,” Coleman says. “Since the remains can’t be affiliated, we cannot provide them to anyone.”
But Travis Willingham, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law student of Cherokee descent who is working on the case, says the transportation department and the DNR, which owns and controls Native American remains stored throughout the state, have never taken a proper inventory at the Museum Support Center.
“They are not allowed to even determine whether they are affiliated or not until after consultation, which they have not done, which is why they’re getting sued,” Willingham said. “Since consultation has not been completed, legally the affiliation of these remains has not been determined and cannot until after consultation.”
The failure of state agencies such as the transportation department to consult with tribal representatives has led to the repatriation of remains to the wrong party, says Sandra Massey, a member of the Sac and Fox Repatriation Committee.
“They’re just bypassing us completely,” she says. “They have buried some people and they didn’t tell us about that.”
Willingham, who gave a lecture on federal Indian law at MU last month, said the Sac and Fox Nation’s lawsuit is the first against “state actors” for alleged violations of NAGPRA. Also unprecedented, says Willingham, is the tribe’s claim that the alleged mishandling of remains violates the civil rights of Native Americans.
“This isn’t the only state that ignores NAGPRA,” Willingham said. “This case could make those states open their eyes and start following the law.”
The Sac and Fox settled in parts of three Midwest states, including Missouri, after the War of 1812. In 1824, the so-called “Missouri Band” of the tribe ceded all of its territory in northern Missouri to the federal government. A decade later, the Sac and Fox agreed to move to a 256,000-acre reservation that encompassed parts of Kansas and Nebraska.
The last of that land was ceded to the government in 1867 in exchange for 750,000 acres in Oklahoma. Today, only 1,000 acres, near Stroud, Okla., remain in the tribe’s control.
The Nation’s lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount in damages for compensation of lost remains, funerary objects and cultural items. The case was scheduled for trial Nov. 3, but was recently pushed back to August.
Massey says MU was ripe to be sued along with the transportation department and the DNR until Wilson, a retired anthropology professor and former mayor of Columbia, took over the Museum Support Center’s NAGPRA program. Before that, MU had a “very, very bad” reputation with her tribe, Massey says.
“He has given us a complete inventory and has met with us on several occasions,” she says. “He has provided us with anything he possibly can.”
But the damage may have already been done. Don Hart says that for many Native American tribes, removing bodies from the ground, placing them in boxes and separating them from their burial objects permanently affects their afterlife.
Even those remains that are eventually repatriated for proper burial “are never going to have what they had originally,” Hart says. “We don’t have a reburial ceremony. When we bury people, we expect them to be buried once.”