Skeletons In The Closet : Code Switch In a small suburb of Washington, D.C., a non-descript beige building houses thousands of Native human remains. The remains are currently in the possession of the Smithsonian Institution. But for the past decade, the Seminole Tribe of Florida has been fighting to get some of them back to Florida to be buried. The controversy over who should decide the fate of these remains has raised questions about identity, history, and the nature of archaeology.

Skeletons In The Closet

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

I'm Gene Demby, and this is CODE SWITCH from NPR. And I'm joined this week by my teammate Kumari Devarajan. She's a producer on the team. Y'all have probably heard her name in the credits. What's good, Kuku (ph)?

KUMARI DEVARAJAN, BYLINE: Hey, Gene.

DEMBY: All right, Kumari, so I know you have a story for us that you've been reporting out for some time. I have no idea where this story is going, so I'm hopping in your metaphorical car and letting you drive us to wherever you're driving us. So where are you taking us?

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

DEVARAJAN: So about a 45-minute drive outside of Washington D.C., there's a small Maryland suburb called Suitland.

DEMBY: OK.

DEVARAJAN: And it's your typical suburb - lots of strip malls, the whole deal. But there's this one spot in particular on this busy road across from a nail salon and dentist and a liquor store and a gas station. And so behind this very secure black fence with barbed wire and signs that say no trespassing, there's a couple of huge, ugly beige buildings with no windows.

DEMBY: So it's like one of those weird, secret D.C. area government buildings with stuff going on that we will never know about.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah, well, it turns out - and this is where it gets kind of grim - in one of these nondescript buildings in the middle of the suburbs, there are thousands of human remains.

DEMBY: What? What? That is not where I thought you were going with this, Kumari. So is it some kind of morgue?

DEVARAJAN: Not quite - it's actually part of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. And a lot of those remains, more than 10,000 of them, belong to Native American people. Some are almost complete skeletons, and some are just individual bones. And they're in drawers in these cupboards in these rooms that have no windows and are climate-controlled.

DEMBY: All right. So I have so many questions. Like, for starters, why are there all these remains, all these bodies, in this building in this random D.C. suburb? Like, what - what?

DEVARAJAN: Today I'm going to try to answer that question. And we're gonna be looking at some specific remains that people have been fighting over for more than a decade. Nearly 1,500 of those Native remains were excavated from Florida. And one Native tribe has been fighting the Smithsonian to get those remains back to Florida.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEVARAJAN: This is a story about that fight and the hundreds of years of scientific practice that got us here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHIP COLWELL: For more than a century, what it meant to be a good archaeologist was to dig things up, to then preserve them forever.

BILL BILLECK: Museums, typically, once we receive something, we hold on to them and we don't get rid of them.

TINA OSCEOLA: We're going to draw the line in the sand. We want them all back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEVARAJAN: Those first two voices you heard belonged to an anthropologist and a museum officer. And we're going to get to them a little later. That last voice you heard belongs to Tina Osceola. She's a member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. And the Florida Seminoles are the tribe that's been leading this fight to have these remains returned. They're a relatively small tribe of about 4,000 people. They're also called the Unconquered because they fought three wars against the U.S. government and never lost. And they successfully resisted U.S. attempts to relocate them. And they're also the owners of the Hard Rock Cafe chain.

DEMBY: (Laughter) What?

DEVARAJAN: (Laughter).

DEMBY: That is - what? - that is - OK - that's - of the many things you said right there, that might be the weirdest thing that you've said of all.

DEVARAJAN: It's pretty random.

DEMBY: (Laughter) All right, so tell me more about Tina Osceola.

OSCEOLA: (Laughter) I think, like, how I define myself every day is that I'm a grandmother, a mom, a daughter, a sister, a Seminole woman just living my life.

DEVARAJAN: Tina also directs the tribe's historic preservation office. And I want to tell you a little story about her and how she got into this fight. It starts in the year 1983, when Tina is just 15. And she enters the Jr. Miss Seminole pageant with a bunch of other Seminole girls.

OSCEOLA: You know, some of us - not me - but some of them had the big hair, you know?

DEMBY: Sure, Tina. So everybody in 1983 had that "Flashdance" hair but you. OK, OK, sure.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah, not her though (laughter).

DEMBY: (Laughter).

DEVARAJAN: But she ended up winning that pageant.

DEMBY: OK, Miss Tina.

DEVARAJAN: And part of her role as Miss Jr. Seminole (ph) was to travel to conferences with other Native youth.

OSCEOLA: Then you meet, let's say, Miss Navajo, Miss Indian World - you get to hear them speak about what it's like for them. And really I took those issues in.

DEVARAJAN: In a way, the pageant led her to become politically activated. She said it connected her to struggles all over Indian Country.

OSCEOLA: I do have a keen understanding that whatever we do here in Florida as a Seminole, whatever we fight or whatever crime we might commit, you know, affects tribes across the Nation, like a ripple effect.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEVARAJAN: Today, Tina is fighting the oldest museum in the Smithsonian - the Museum of Natural History. She's trying to get those 1,500 Native remains back to Florida. And those are just a fraction of the ones sitting in Maryland.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILLECK: I was hired originally to work in the repatriation office because I had repatriation experience.

DEMBY: New voice just dropped.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah. That's Bill Billeck. He's been working at the Museum of Natural History for 27 years. And back when he was first hired, he was kind of a rare find.

BILLECK: Not many people had worked with Native people on human remains.

DEVARAJAN: Now he's the head of the repatriation office for the museum. So that's the office that makes decisions about returning Native remains and other artifacts to tribes. And Bill told me that he considers repatriation of these remains a social justice issue.

BILLECK: In that Native Americans have been very badly treated in this country, and their cemeteries were excavated and remains removed without their permission.

DEMBY: So, Kumari, who was digging up all these remains?

DEVARAJAN: It's a long list. So ever since Europeans arrived in this land, it's been grave looters, scientists, the U.S. government. And we're going to get into all that later.

DEMBY: OK, OK.

DEVARAJAN: But just so you know, it's hundreds of thousands of remains over the course of U.S. history. And the Natural History Museum, where Bill works, ended up with some of them through donations and their own excavations. So by the time you get to the 1980s, the Smithsonian had acquired around 18,000.

DEMBY: Wow. That is a lot of remains. And they're in that building in Maryland that you visited? Do we know who those remains belong to?

DEVARAJAN: I mean, Gene, if everyone agreed about whom the remains belonged to, there would be no story here, and I would not be talking to you.

DEMBY: That is a very fair point, Kumari.

DEVARAJAN: But here's where it gets tricky.

DEMBY: This is where it gets tricky?

DEVARAJAN: Well, OK, trickier - in 1989, Congress passed a law. And among other things, it called for the Smithsonian institutions to return Native American human remains and artifacts that had been taken. And since that law passed, the museum has released about 6,000 Native remains. So that's about a third of where they started.

DEMBY: OK. But what about the other two-thirds of those remains? Like, we're still talking thousands and thousands of bodies and body parts. Is this where the Seminoles come back in?

DEVARAJAN: Yup. So in 2011, the Seminole Tribe requested to meet with Bill's team about the remains from Florida. But at the time, the museum would not consider handing them over to the tribe. And here's why. Even though the law now said that they were to return Native American human remains...

BILLECK: We were to return them when we could be able to culturally affiliate them.

DEMBY: Culturally affiliate them - which, in this case means...

DEVARAJAN: OK. So basically, the museum wanted to be sure that the remains were connected to the Seminole tribe before they returned them. It's a standard that they call cultural affiliation. So the museum does research to see if they can connect the remains to a federally recognized tribe. And at the time, the museum was really clear. Only when it could establish a connection would it agree to repatriate them.

DEMBY: OK. So the museum didn't want to go giving remains to people when they might not have been from that community, which makes sense, right? That's not bananas.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah. It sounds reasonable. But if the museum couldn't find a connection, it meant that these remains stayed put. And also, not every Smithsonian institution was using the same rule. Each museum had its own policy, even though they're all under the same law. So for example, the National Museum of the American Indian, they work to repatriate whenever they can. But at the Museum of Natural History, where Bill works, their policy's that they have people who study Native remains. So they're not trying to return all the remains. And here's the thing. If the tribe wanted remains back from the museum, the museum had to first find that those remains are connected to the tribe. And in order for the museum to do that...

BILLECK: You have to have a good deal of evidence.

DEVARAJAN: Evidence like...

BILLECK: Treaties, historical records, cultural continuity, styles of artifacts, ways of life, geographical location, oral tradition.

DEVARAJAN: And the remains that we're talking about today, these 1,500 from Florida, we know that they came from 88 different locations throughout the state, across 32 counties. And most were dug up between the late 1800s through the 1930s. And they were dug up by dozens of different institutions and individuals.

DEMBY: So hold up. So if all these different people were in all these different places doing all these digging up of bodies, how does the Smithsonian even have the information for all these remains, right? Like, it seems like it would be kind of a mess.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah. And they have different amounts of information about different remains. It's not all the same amount of detail. But whatever the information they do have, the museum still was not able to connect the remains to any tribe.

DEMBY: So instead of handing these remains over to the Seminole Tribe, which made the claim on them, the museum just held onto them?

DEVARAJAN: And at that point, the Seminoles couldn't really do anything. The remains just sat in the museum's storage facility. They were in a sort of unaffiliated purgatory. And Tina told me this was a huge violation of the tribe's belief system, the fact that those remains were just sitting in a drawer.

OSCEOLA: It's directly related to Seminoles who live today. We don't just bury those who've passed and that's it, you know, to where we come around once a year and, you know, we visit grandma. That's not it. That's not what it's about.

DEVARAJAN: Tina told me the situation means, the people in that building, they can't rest.

OSCEOLA: Our ancestors, their health continues on. The importance of their health and their spirit carries on beyond when they live here.

DEVARAJAN: And that's why she's been fighting with the Natural History Museum for 10 years. She says nothing good comes from having them stay with the museum.

OSCEOLA: You can't prove to us that you're doing anything that will better humanity, so we're telling you that your possession of our ancestors is hurting our people that are living and walking today. It's affecting the health of generations of Seminoles who haven't even been born yet. We want them put back.

DEMBY: So what is Bill's stance on all this? - because he described the repatriation of the remains that are in the Smithsonian's possession as a social justice issue. But now the Natural History Museum is still holding onto thousands of those remains.

DEVARAJAN: I asked him about that. What is the value of these remains having been at the museum for the - you know, at least maybe just in the past 20 years?

BILLECK: I think that there - it's like, why do museums have collections in general? I think it's because there could be - what questions can be learned from them? What questions will be asked in the future? What questions can we ask now? And sometimes we don't know the answers and what the questions will be.

DEMBY: So Bill is saying they're holding onto them because they don't even know what scientific questions these remains might be able to answer at some point in the future. I wonder what Tina thinks about that.

OSCEOLA: That's my other favorite one. We don't know what we don't know. Another one was technology could be developed in the future that could reveal so much, but it's just not developed yet. How do you fight that?

DEVARAJAN: According to Tina, this idea that there wasn't enough evidence to link the remains to the Seminoles, that's BS. And these standards that the museum was using to determine what is worth returning...

OSCEOLA: There's simple roadblocks - you know, culturally unidentifiable, culturally unaffiliated. So there's all of these different loopholes for museums, research facilities, whatever to hold on to these items and human remains.

DEMBY: So Tina thinks they're just stalling but saying that it's about these standards.

OSCEOLA: They won't come out and say they - those remains belong to us, but they have institutionalized a process that claims ownership over our ancestors. We know that they're our ancient ones, and we want them put back.

DEMBY: So hold up a second. Is she right, though, Kumari? Like, are these remains that we're talking about here - are they Seminole ancestors?

DEVARAJAN: It depends on whom you ask. So Bill points out that the Seminoles are most notably descended from Creek people who moved into Florida around 1700. And a lot of these remains are from way before that time. But when the Creek people moved in, it's very likely that they mixed with Native people who were already in Florida and that the Seminoles who are alive today share ancestry with those remains from Florida.

BILLECK: But that doesn't mean that they are culturally affiliated.

DEVARAJAN: So Bill says biological affiliation is not cultural affiliation.

Can you explain the difference?

BILLECK: Culture is about, you know, lifeways, practices, how you see things. Otherwise, if we just use biology, every tribe in the - for instance, the United States might have members who married into their tribe from other tribes. So every tribe then would be cultural affiliated with everyone based on biology.

DEMBY: So this thing that Bill is saying is something that we talk about a lot on CODE SWITCH - right? - that people, for example, take ancestry tests - right? - that show them that they're, like, one-eighteenth something. Right? It doesn't mean you share an identity with people because you have similar biological markers.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah, that's true. But part of the question is, who should be deciding whether a connection is valid in the first place?

DEMBY: Yeah, yeah. I guess you're right.

DEVARAJAN: So - yeah, like, why does the Natural History Museum get to be the arbiter? The Seminole say they have their own oral traditions and beliefs that connect them with these remains. And they've done their own scientific studies that connect them as well. But the museum had the final say.

OSCEOLA: And they'll tell you that - well, the Seminoles are rather new to Florida. That's what we hear. They don't have the same cultural belief system. And so we have no voice in that. You know, we're sitting there being told who we are. We know that's not true.

DEVARAJAN: Almost a decade after asking the Natural History Museum for the remains, the Seminole Tribe put the museum on blast.

OSCEOLA: That is a publicly funded institution. Ultimately, their budget is controlled by Congress.

DEVARAJAN: Tina and the Seminole Tribe started a public campaign called #NoMoreStolenAncestors. They talked to reporters. Tina gave lectures. They got the United Southern (ph) and Eastern Tribes and the National Congress of the American Indian to pass resolutions urging the museum to give the remains to the tribe. And the Seminole Tribe's museum publicly ended its relationship with the Smithsonian.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: So did this public pressure campaign work?

DEVARAJAN: After the break, what would it actually take for the tribe to get these remains? Plus, what does all of this say about the field of archaeology?

COLWELL: It seemed to me that a lot of archaeologists cared a lot more about dead Indians than living ones.

DEMBY: Stay with us, y'all.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

DEVARAJAN: Kumari.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. So, Ku Ku, a group of Seminole Indians have been trying to get about 1,500 Native remains that were taken from Florida back to Florida. And those remains were in the possession of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

DEVARAJAN: Yup. And in order to understand this fight, we're going to look at how Native remains ended up in the possession of the Natural History Museum in the first place.

DEMBY: All right, let's get to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEVARAJAN: The roots of archaeology date back to when Europeans first arrived on this continent.

COLWELL: Plymouth Rock. You know, just shortly after the pilgrims arrived in 1620, the pilgrims were wandering around, looking for food, and they came across a grave. And they dug it up, and they took some of the possessions, the belongings, with them.

DEVARAJAN: This is Chip Colwell.

COLWELL: So from the first encounters of Europeans and Native Americans, there was this interest in understanding who Native Americans were. And Europeans were doing this by digging up graves.

DEVARAJAN: Chip is an anthropologist. He wrote a book called "Plundered Skulls And Stolen Spirits: Inside The Fight To Reclaim Native America's Culture." And he also used to be in charge of the repatriation program at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

DEMBY: So his job was like Bill Bullock's job, just at a different museum.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah, exactly. And I want to tell you some of Chip's story because it gets at some of the reckonings that science has had over these very questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEVARAJAN: So Chip was first bitten by the archaeology bug in the early 1990s. He was in high school, and he had started taking archaeology classes and going on digs.

COLWELL: The very first time that I found an arrowhead, I was doing a survey out in the Sonoran Desert outside Tucson. And, you know, it was just, like, this little moment where you're connected to someone from the deep past, you know, maybe thousands of years ago. And I - you know, I lifted it up, and I jumped up and down, and I screamed. You know, it was just - it's that thrill of excitement.

DEVARAJAN: That excitement at finding something from the past was something that had been animating people for centuries. And it started with digging up graves to find items that might be valuable, but also to dig for information.

COLWELL: So, for example, you have Thomas Jefferson digging into a mound on his property, a burial mound, to try to prove the antiquity of North America.

DEMBY: I mean, if this is Thomas Jefferson, I feel like there's something more sinister to the story.

DEVARAJAN: (Laughter).

DEMBY: But, OK, yet this grave digging thing is kind of a cliche in popular culture, right? In action-adventure movies, somebody takes some artifact from a grave or a tomb somewhere and then the action ensues 'cause usually in the movies, upsetting the grave always unleashes some calamity, some evil.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah, but in real life, there seems to have actually been zero consequences for grave robbing.

DEMBY: Right, exactly (laughter). I didn't realize that people have been digging up bones for research for this long.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah. And then all that digging - that led to the advent of museums 'cause they needed places to put all this stuff that they excavated.

DEMBY: Right.

DEVARAJAN: So by the mid-1800s, you started to see a bunch of museums opening up all over the place, like the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

COLWELL: Museums then are really formed to collect - to collect the natural world and to collect human history.

DEVARAJAN: Essentially, they were trying to learn about the world they were living in and the people who had been living there. They were learning things about Native civilizations, like gender roles, diseases, social status.

DEMBY: Sure. OK. So you have a lot of these, like, white archaeologists digging up Native American graves as part of their practice. I mean, I feel like you're setting aside the living Native Americans who might've been able to illuminate this for them. And, of course, the period you're talking about - like, in the 1800s, where these museums are popping up - is the same time that the U.S. government is carrying out a bunch of active wars against Native people. And settlers were carrying out genocides against Indigenous people, like, all over North America.

DEVARAJAN: Yep.

DEMBY: So I'm guessing a lot of people didn't see all this digging as a benefit to all humankind.

COLWELL: Of course, from the Native American perspective, many tribes will say, we don't need archaeologists to tell us who we are. We know who we are. We know this because our ancestors have taught us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEVARAJAN: Fast forward to the 1970s - Native Americans began protesting in a big, organized way.

COLWELL: They would do things like go into a museum and chain themselves in front of exhibits that displayed human remains, or they would go to an excavation and destroy the tools as a form of protest.

DEVARAJAN: By the time Chip got to college, that wide-eyed kid jumping up and down holding an arrowhead in the Sonoran Desert - he got a reality check.

COLWELL: Here you have archaeologists who study things like Native American religion. And these - you know, some people spend their whole lives doing nothing but trying to understand that. And yet here were contemporary Native Americans saying, our religious beliefs say that we should honor the dead, that we shouldn't have our ancestors on museum shelves. And so it seemed to me that a lot of archaeologists cared a lot more about dead Indians than living ones, and that was really hard for me to make sense of as a young person coming up into the field.

DEVARAJAN: The protests where people stopped digs and chained themselves to exhibits - they had an impact. In 1989 and 1990, federal legislation was passed that stopped most excavations of Native American graves. And it required museums to repatriate the Native human remains in their collections, including that law we talked about before the break that was specifically aimed at the Smithsonian. But, of course, that's not the end of the story.

Thirty years after the law passed, the Natural History Museum is still holding on to thousands of Native remains. Chip says that's because in the U.S., the field of archaeology was essentially built on studying those remains.

COLWELL: For more than a century, what it meant to be a good archaeologist was to dig things up, to then preserve them forever. So the idea that you have a particular group of people that are saying these are our ancestors and we want them out of your institutions - that idea goes completely against the foundational ethics of what it meant to be a professional archaeologist.

DEVARAJAN: Even as the laws were being passed, some big, powerful museums joined forces with major scientific organizations to try to amend the laws in their favor. And they succeeded to some extent. Those laws limited the ways that Native Americans could get control of Native remains from museums.

COLWELL: Most fundamentally didn't allow Native Americans to just go in and reclaim their ancestors. There would be many hoops, many limitations. And, you know, maybe one of the biggest limitations of all was this question of cultural affiliation.

DEMBY: Cultural affiliation, if you all remember, is that standard that a lot of museums use to establish a connection between remains and a specific tribe.

DEVARAJAN: And it's the reason the Natural History Museum did not hand the remains to the Seminole tribe. Chip says this business of cultural affiliation can be really subjective.

COLWELL: Cultural affiliation was purpose-built to depend on the judgments of museum administrators.

DEVARAJAN: He told me this story about five different museums that had remains from the same site in Greenfield, Mass. Among the museums, three different conclusions were made about whom the remains belonged to. And the remains were all taken from the same place.

COLWELL: When you see one site dealt with by different museums differently, that proves, you know, the point. There is no objective standard.

DEMBY: So if you're a tribe trying to get these remains back, what are you supposed to do if all these museums are using different standards and coming to different conclusions about who these remains belong to?

DEVARAJAN: So sometimes when that happens, museums have asked the tribes to decide what they want, which, Tina told me, is what the Seminoles would prefer. I mean, if there's going to be a disagreement, at least let it be worked out by Native tribes and not museums.

DEMBY: Right. That makes sense. So what does Chip have to say about the Natural History Museum?

DEVARAJAN: He says they drag their feet when it comes to returning remains.

COLWELL: For example, when a claim is made, they write incredibly thorough reports. I mean, these are dissertation-length reports. I know of no other museum that goes to such lengths. And on the one hand, it's amazing - right? - 'cause you have all this information, and probably even a lot of tribes benefit from the kind of information collected. But the tradeoff is the pace at which you can address these claims. You know, I've seen some of these reports that can be 200 pages long.

DEMBY: So Chip is saying the Smithsonian has been doing a lot of studying but not a whole lot of returning.

DEVARAJAN: Exactly.

COLWELL: That's how museums get in the way of repatriation. That's how they slow things down to such a point to either frustrate tribes or to simply hope that if you go slow enough, you're not going to return ancestors over the long term.

DEVARAJAN: And the Natural History Museum's sluggish pace - it's been called out before. In 2011, the Government Accountability Office put out a report on the repatriation efforts of the Smithsonian.

DEMBY: So this is like a report card on the repatriation office at the Natural History Museum. And based on what we've been hearing, I'm guessing they did not get straight A's.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah, not quite. So the title of the report - "Much Work Still Needed To Identify And Repatriate Indian Human Remains And Objects."

DEMBY: Much work still needed to be done sounds like an incomplete - sounds like when your teacher is trying to be nice. And you're like, your child has so much room for growth.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah. So a couple highlights from the report.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The Smithsonian originally estimated that the repatriation process would take about five years. However, at the pace that it is progressing, GAO believes it could take several more decades to complete the process.

DEMBY: Several more decades.

DEVARAJAN: Yep. The report also called out the Smithsonian for not giving Congress information about their process.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Given the length of time this process has taken and is expected to take in the future, policymakers do not have information that would keep them apprised at the Smithsonian's repatriation efforts.

DEMBY: So that's bureaucrat speak for y'all taking too damn long.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah. And it's not just the Natural History Museum that hasn't acted fast enough. Other museums are still holding on to these remains. In 2020 - so 30 years after those laws were passed - more than half of the Native remains that were in museums across the country had not been returned.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COLWELL: There were still more than 115,000 skeletons in America's closet.

DEVARAJAN: In March 2019, members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida met with representatives from the Natural History Museum. Bill Billeck from the museum was there...

BILLECK: I think it was about an hour long, and they expressed their concerns.

DEVARAJAN: ...So was Tina Osceola from the Seminole Tribe.

OSCEOLA: We went in there with open minds.

DEVARAJAN: And a year and a half later, in October of 2020, the museum came out with a new policy. It allows tribes to make claims for remains even if the museum finds that they are not culturally affiliated - for example, if the tribe and the remains are from the same place. And the new policy at least opens the door to the possibility of returning those remains to the Seminoles.

BILLECK: The Seminole had really good timing for starting to, you know, ask us to do things. So it was the right time for them to ask those questions and ask us to change the policy, and it was the right time for the museum to change the policy.

DEVARAJAN: In your opinion, do you think that there should have been a policy earlier like this?

BILLECK: I think it took a - it took us a while to come to this policy. And I think - I'm just glad that we have this policy now. We're always going to have people who will say it could have been done earlier. But I don't - I think it needed the right circumstances for it to come.

DEVARAJAN: And if you're wondering how Tina feels about the museum after all this...

OSCEOLA: I want them to regret every decision that they ever made to fight a tribe. I want them to know that what they've done is wrong.

DEVARAJAN: At this point, the Seminole Tribe is going through the museum's inventory to try to identify all the remains they believe to be their ancestors. After that, they'll check in with the museum. Then the museum would check with the other tribes from Florida to see if they were also interested in the remains. And if all those tribes sign off, the remains would finally go to the Florida Seminoles. If that day comes, the Seminoles will have gotten what they wanted for so long. But it won't be a victory. Not for Tina, at least.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OSCEOLA: It's not about winning. There's no winning here. The crime has been committed. We believe that they shouldn't have been removed in the first place. We don't have ceremonies that are particularly geared towards the reburial, for instance, you know, because we never intended to dig them up or remove them to begin with.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEVARAJAN: When Tina told me this, she was having a particularly bad week. She had just lost a cousin and was trying to figure out the logistics of transferring his body and arranging a funeral.

OSCEOLA: I'm burying a cousin this week. And when we put him to rest, it's not with the intention of, I wonder what the casket's going to look like or what he's going to look like when they dig him up in 40 years, in 100 years, in 200 years?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OSCEOLA: We don't bury our grandmother wondering those things.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: That's our show. Kumari, you want to stick around and do these credits with me?

DEVARAJAN: Duh. Please follow us on Twitter and on the Gram - @NPRCodeSwitch. But if email is more your vibe, ours is codeswitch@npr.org, so hit us up. And subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts. And you can subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/codeswitchnewsletter.

DEMBY: This episode was produced by Kumari. It was edited by Leah Donnella, me and Steve Drummond.

DEVARAJAN: Shout out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH squad - Karen Grigsby Bates, Alyssa Jeong Perry, Christina Cala, Jess Kung, Summer Thomad, and Sam Yellowhorse Kesler. Our art director is LA Johnson, and our new intern is Aja Drain.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

DEVARAJAN: And I'm Kumari Devarajan.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

DEVARAJAN: Blessings. No (laughter), so bad.

DEMBY: (Laughter) No, no. A thousand percent keep blessings - a thousand percent.

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