Forced Out During Trail of Tears, Muscogee Nation Asks Alabama for Remains, Artifacts

Leaders of several American Indian tribes, including the Oklahoma-based Muscogee Nation, are asking the University of Alabama to give back almost 6,000 human remains and artifacts the school keeps in its museum and Moundville Archaeological Park, the Associated Press reported.

The Muscogee Nation and six other tribes jointly sent a claim to the university under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a federal law that mandates any institutions that receive federal funding must give any remains and artifacts buried with those remains back to their tribes.

The Muscogee Nation was forced to leave Alabama in the 1830s during the Trail of Tears, a mass forced displacement of tens of thousands of people under the so-called Indian Removal Act. Muscogee Nation Principal Chief David Hill said that losing remains from their tribe at Moundville adds to the suffering, the AP reported.

"We didn't even get to do proper burials for those lost in the Trail of Tears," Hill said.

"Why do they need all these items in the museum?" he added. "It's never too late to do the right thing. That's all we want. Just return them back."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

University of Alabama Artifacts
Leaders of several American Indian tribes are asking the University of Alabama to return nearly 6,000 human remains and artifacts from the school's archaeological park and museum. Eugene Futato, senior archeologist and curator of archaeological collections at the Office of Archaeological Services, pulls out a drawer of Mississippian Indian ceramic vessels from Moundville, in Moundville, Alabama, on July 18, 2002. Mike Kittrell/Mobile Register via AP

The Muscogee Nation has tried for six years to get the remains back, but bureaucratic red tape has slowed the effort, said RaeLynn Butler, the Muscogee Nation's historic and cultural preservation manager.

The situation is no different than if someone dug up a family graveyard and took the remains for study, said Del Beaver, second chief of the Muscogee Nation.

"And then if somebody asked for their grandma back and we said 'No, there's too much red tape,'" Beaver told the news site Al.com. "Just give us our people back."

Communications with the university slowed during the pandemic, frustrating tribal leaders who believe the remains and artifacts at the university's Moundville Archaeological Park should be reburied, Butler said.

Next week, a federal review committee is scheduled to consider the evidence linking the seven tribes to Moundville and will rule on whether they can claim the remains as their own. However, the committee can't force the university to turn over the remains and artifacts, Butler said.

"The University of Alabama is honored to serve as the steward of Moundville Archaeological Park, one of the nation's premier and best-preserved cultural heritage sites," according to a statement provided by university spokeswoman Diedre Stalnaker.

University officials this week made leaders of the Muscogee Nation aware of the school's "desire to further collaborate on their most recent joint request related to Moundville," the statement said.

Other tribes involved in the effort include the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the Chickasaw Nation, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and Alabama-Quassarte Tribal Town.

Moundville Archaeological Park
Leaders of several American Indian tribes, including the Oklahoma-based Muscogee Nation, are asking the University of Alabama to give back thousands of human remains and artifacts the school keeps in its museum and archaeological park. The Moundville Archaeological Park, which is operated by the University of Alamaba, is seen in Moundville, Alabama. Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images