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Opinion. Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide football team may be ranked number one in Division I College Football (SEC-West) going into tomorrow’s playoff game against the Cincinnati Bearcats, but if there was a ranking system for repatriation of Indigenous remains, the University of Alabama might be ranked at the bottom of the standings–in any conference. That’s because a repatriation fight between tribes and the university has gone on for over a decade with a lot of talk, but little action. 

At issue are an estimated 10,000 human remains of seven Muskogean language-speaking tribes that were excavated from what is now an archeological park, called Moundville. The state of Alabama granted stewardship of Moundville park to the University of Alabama in 1961.

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Located 13 miles south of Tuscaloosa, the university’s website promotes the archeological park as “one of the nation’s premier Native American heritage sites. Called ‘The Big Apple of the 14th Century’ by National Geographic, Moundville Archeological Park was once the site of a powerful prehistoric community that, at its peak, was America’s largest city north of Mexico.”

For over a decade, seven tribes that can trace their presence back for hundreds of years to the southeastern part of the United States where Moundville served as a neutral territory have fought the university in a battle for the repatriation of their ancestors’ remains. For those tribes that include the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the Chickasaw Nation, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, Alabama-Quassarte Tribal Town, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the repatriation fight has gone too long.

“Basically, what it boils down to is that the University of Alabama has in its possession thousands of our ancestors that were from the Southeastern original homeland, Muscogee Creek People, and other tribes as well,” Muscogee Nation spokesperson Jason Salsman told Native News Online. “This repatriation fight has been going on, in our minds, long enough.”

Native News Online published an article about the repatriation fight on Dec. 2, 2021. In the article, senior reporter Jenna Kunze writes: “The University of Alabama Museums have skeletons in their closets—literally.”

Because of a loophole in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, the university labeled the remains as culturally unidentifiable. Under NAGPRA, there is no timeline or requirement for a museum or university to identify cultural affiliation of remains in its possession.

Through the years, the university has held consultations with some of the tribes involved. During one visit in 2016, tribal officials observed human remains stored in plastic bags in five-gallon buckets on the floor, in brown paper bags “with burial fill spilling out,” and in cardboard boxes “with gaping holes in the sides.” 

Unbelievably, University of Alabama officials have, until recently, maintained that the remains excavated from Moundville have no relationship to the tribes that were forced to leave the state during the removal period, known as the Trail of Tears.

Even though the university would not concede the remains were those of the tribes that occupied Moundville, several of the tribes have been invited to an annual fall festival.

While the university has demonstrated a lack of overall cooperation with the tribes, progress is being made because a federal committee that oversees NAGPRA on November 24, 2021 made clear the cultural connection for the descendants of Moundville. In a sense, the committee’s decision has forced the university’s next move.

The university responded through a letter to the seven tribes from University Executive Vice President James Dalton, who wrote about the university’s role as the Moundville sites’ “official steward… devoting millions to its preservation” and assured tribal members of the university’s commitment to educate the public on the site, exemplified in the invitation to “dozens of Native American performers, artists, storytellers, and other cultural bearers” to campus each year.

Of course, these dozens of Native Americans performers, artists, storytellers, and other cultural bearers cannot supplant the University of Alabama’s failure to do the right thing when it comes to the sacredness of repatriation.

Nor do the dozens of Native Americans coming to the campus to dance and tell stories excuse the university for its poor record of attracting Native Americans to its student body. According to the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, in the fall of 2021, there were only 137 Native Americans in the university’s student body of over 38,300.

It appears the University of Alabama has been more concerned about keeping the almost 10,000 Indigenous ancestral remains than they are of today’s living Native Americans.

Alabama may be number one in football, but the Crimson Tide comes up way short when it comes to its dealings with Indigenous people — dead and living.

The tribes tell Native News Online there is a planned virtual consultation on Jan. 7, 2022 to discuss the next steps. We await an update on the university’s next move. 

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About The Author
Levi Rickert
Author: Levi RickertEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Levi Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected]