Sac and Fox Nation: Missouri Desecrated our Ancestors. We Want 'Em Back (And Some)!
|The DNR has been keeping Native American bones like these for decades.|
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.
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.