Sac and Fox Nation: Missouri Desecrated our Ancestors. We Want 'Em Back (And Some)!

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The DNR has been keeping Native American bones like these for decades. - IMAGE VIA
  • Image via
  • The DNR has been keeping Native American bones like these for decades.
The Sac and Fox Nation wants its grandfathers back.  

Right now, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources is storing tribal bones in bankers boxes: teeth, skulls, shin-bone fragments. Many date back centuries, and a few as far back as 5,000 B.C.E.

Some were unearthed by bulldozers, digging for new highways or shopping centers; others, by farmers.  All told, the agency possesses human remains from at least 251 different dead Native Americans, records show.

The departed suffer from "spiritual unrest," say tribal members, who wish to rebury them and speed them on their spiritual journey. But that's not all they want: The Sac and Fox believe Missouri should be punished for mishandling their ancestors.

In 2002, the tribe filed what became a federal class action lawsuit against the state. And on Monday morning - after nine years of legal wrangling - the Sac and Fox are finally hauling state officials to a trial in the U.S. district court in Kansas City with the goal of making them pay. 

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The mere passage of a law allowing tribes to sue for desecration was by itself considered a victory back in 1990 - the year that Congress passed the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (a.k.a., NAGPRA). That measure transferred to right to hold native skeletons from federal museums back to the tribes.  

"NAGPRA made us humans," testified the late Richard Black, a former Sac and Fox representative, in a deposition for the current lawsuit. "Prior to that, we were archaeological specimens."

But implementing the law didn't come easy. Black counted Missouri among "the worst three of four states" he dealt with in terms of compliance - at least at first. "Missouri is a nightmare," he told state lawyers in 2003.

Black alleged that some bones had been kept in plastic bags and rat poison boxes, with as many as ten individuals per container. Some remains, tribe members claim, were even released to "hobby groups" of white people "with no connection to any tribes," who reburied them in their own ceremonies in (you can't make this up) Frankenstein, Missouri, which is near Jefferson City.  

The federal complaint also accuses Missouri officials of ignoring NAGPRA's first directive in the early 1990s: the creation of inventories, with tribal consultation, of all human remains in state hands.  

"Basically, the state kept saying, 'We're gonna ignore federal law and follow our state law,'" says Travis Willingham, the tribe's Kansas City-based attorney. A spokesman for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, says it does not comment on pending litigation.

The Missouri law proscribing how to deal with unmarked graves has been on the books since 1987. But state records show that only a handful of people have ever been prosecuted for violating it.  

Willingham's big argument is this: NAGPRA applies to the DNR because of how it defines a "museum": "any...State or local government agency....that receives Federal funds and has possession of...Native American cultural items."  

Willingham would be the one to know: Few other lawyers in the state are pushing for Indian rights. As a University of Missouri student in the mid-1990s, he led demonstrations in Columbia, demanding that his school comply with NAGPRA. It eventually did.

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It was a totally different story for the DNR, Willingham says. In the late 90s, it recovered pieces of 29 skeletons from the burial mound on the Mississippi River bluff high above Clarksville. Two years later, bulldozers clearing the way for a shopping center in Fenton shook loose remains from 70 individuals from centuries past. The agency collected those too, as state law requires.

But in neither case, the complaint alleges, did the state follow the overriding federal requirements of NAGPRA: It never consulted the Sac and Fox, who claim the southern banks of the Missouri River all the way up into Iowa as their ancestral territory.

Interestingly, some of the remains predate the Sac and Fox's major migration here, which took place in the mid 1700s. Not only that, some are so old, they're untraceable to any known tribes. These constitute "unaffiliated remains." So how can the Sac and Fox claim them?

As tribal historian Jonathan Buffalo explained in a 2003 deposition, the Sac and Fox were the last people in northern Missouri to make land treaties with the U.S. government. If a skeleton is discovered in Missouri belonging to an ancient people, "those people aren't going to walk into the door," he says.

"Nobody is going to walk in except the Sac and Fox, because somebody has to speak for those people, or else they're going to stay in the museum in the boxes in the shelves."

Some Indians reject outright the very phrase, "unaffiliated remains."

"We don't consider anybody culturally unidentifiable because everybody belonged to somebody," says Sandra K. Massey, the tribe's historic preservation officer in Oklahoma.

Asked in a 2003 deposition exactly how her tribe has been damaged by the state, she responded with an anger that seemed to stretch back generations:
"The earth itself is our grandmother....our people have been ripped from her, and I don't know if that means anything to you, but it means a great deal to us....It's ugly, it's obscene, it's unnatural....We are a continuum of those people....I don't have to have known them personally. I don't even have to say I am directly descended from them, because they are our people....

"And anything that has been done to them is on your head because you're going to pay for that. It's not going to be in ways that maybe even you understand. It's going to be you and your children, that's how we believe these things, that's what you have desecrated, that's what you have gone into, that's what you're dealing with here."  
In a recent interview with RFT, several years after making those statements, Massey sounds calmer.

U.S. District Court in Kansas City, where the Sac and Fox trial will be going down.
  • U.S. District Court in Kansas City, where the Sac and Fox trial will be going down.
"They're consulting with us now," she says of Missouri officials. "It's improved a lot. They do send us regular letters about what's going on. If they find human remains, they do call."

But the agency's past actions still rankle. Some of the bones were separated from burial artifacts, which would've indicated tribal origin. "We want accountability for what happened before," Massey says.

According to court documents, a mediator suggested a sum for damages last spring that the Sac and Fox reluctantly agreed to. But the state rejected the amount, setting the case for trial before a U.S. district judge on Monday.  

Last summer, the feds established rules making it much easier for any tribe with historical presence - not just the last to sign a treaty with the U.S. - to repatriate its ancestors.

That leaves one obvious problem locally: more than twenty tribes (such as the Osage, or the Iowa) claim a historical presence in Missouri at one time or another.

Yet the Native Americans themselves - a notoriously quarrelsome group - don't forsee any conflicts in this particular area. As Richard Black testified before he died: "Repatriation - it's one of the few things in Indian country you can get anybody to agree on."
 
 

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