Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma

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Eight Choctaw Ancestors Have Returned to Rest

On May 16, 2013, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma repatriated a collection containing the remains of eight Choctaw ancestors and 520 funerary objects from the Natchez Trace Parkway. The same day that these ancestors and funerary objects were returned, Choctaw Nation Historic Preservation Department staff, assisted by representatives from the Parkway, respectfully reburied them on protected land at an undisclosed location. Now, these ancestors are back at rest.

The remains and objects came from the Boyd Mounds archaeological site, located in what is now Madison County, Mississippi. This was a village site inhabited by ancestral Choctaw people from AD 300-700. Several centuries later, earth mounds were built on the old village site and used to bury the deceased. Choctaw people continued to visit this ancient, sacred area and as recently as the early 1800s buried a loved one in the mounds. However, in 1820, the Choctaw Tribe ceded 5 million acres, including the land on which the site sits, to the United States through the Treaty of Doaks Stand.

In 1963 and 1964 in preparation for constructing an adjacent section of the Natchez Trace Parkway, the National Park Service employed archaeologists to excavate many of the burial mounds at the Boyd Site. Human remains and burial objects were taken from their graves, studied, written about, and then placed in long-term storage. In that day and age, federal agencies gave no thought to whether or not Native American people wanted their ancestors’ graves to be treated in such a way. The remains and funerary objects from the Boyd site sat in storage for decades, far from where their loved ones had originally buried them.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) became law in 1991, making it possible for Tribes to repatriate ancestral human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and items of cultural patrimony held in federal collections. The repatriation and reburial conducted in May culminated 12 years of NAGPRA consultation between the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the Natchez Trace Parkway, and other Tribes. The Choctaw NAGPRA Advisory Board, made up of 10 Tribal leaders and traditional people guided Choctaw Nation’s role process. The reburial was conducted under the direct supervision of 2 Choctaw spiritual leaders, and with the financial assistance of a National Parks Service grant.

The past cannot be undone, but in working together to see these ancestors returned to their rightful rest, Choctaw people and current Natchez Trace Parkway staff fostered a friendship and understanding that will influence each other’s thoughts and actions far into the future. According to Olin Williams,” After several repatriations, I can tell that the agency folks are starting to understand what we are trying to communicate. I think they are beginning to sense the proper repatriation spirit. The fulfillment of returning the remains is erasing the guilt and fear of accounting for mistakes of history.”

The ancestors from Boyd Mounds site are again buried, as their loved ones long ago intended. When we of the present day and age pass on to the next life and meet the spirits of these ancient people, we should ask them forgiveness for our failure to protect the sanctity of their original graves. However, we can also find a measure of solace that in laying their remains back to rest, some service has been done for them.