For members of the Muscogee Creek Nation, the Ocmulgee National Monument in Macon has been sacred ground for over a thousand years.
In the 1930s, archeologists unearthed millions of objects from the site, including the remains of the people who were buried there. Now some of those people have been brought back home.
Members of the Muscogee Creek nation say they are direct descendants of the people whose bodies were unearthed from the Ocmulgee National Monument in the 1930s.
In September, tribal members traveled to Middle Georgia from Oklahoma for the annual Ocmulgee Indian Celebration, a public observance of their culture and heritage that draws thousands of visitors each year.
A few weeks before, they were here for a more private event, the re-burial of 113 of their ancestors and 42,000 funeral objects.
Raelynn Butler is the tribe’s Historic and Cultural Preservation manager. She oversaw the reinterment.
“Those individuals, you know, at one time they had a proper funeral and they were buried by people that loved them,” Butler said. “And so for us the most respectful thing we can do is to put them back where they belong and to make sure that it was done in a respectful way and to let them be at rest again.”
Butler says the wishes of the native people were overlooked when archeologists unearthed nearly three million objects from Ocmulgee in the 1930s and split them between museums, universities and the federal government.
“No one asked the descendants you know is it okay if we keep them and keep them in these facilities for 80 years to study them,” Butler said.
Amberly Proctor attended the Ocmulgee Indian Celebration as the current Miss Muscogee Creek Nation. She says while she’s happy her ancestors have been returned to Ocmulgee, she wishes it wasn’t necessary.
“It’s very emotional because you know when we bury our people, they are meant to stay buried. They should never be dug up or anything,” Proctor said. “We never should have had to come to this point where we had to put them back to where they belong.”
And putting them back is a lengthy process. It took this tribe 20 years.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, allows descendants to request the return of remains held by the federal government.
But the process is different for museums like the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
Butler says the tribe believes additional remains are there but must go through a lengthy process involving extensive research to get them back.
“I think a lot of times our histories are oral history and we can't necessarily prove that we were in an area before we were contacted,” Butler said. “And so I think tribes have a hard time being able to prove or to prove in an empirical way that that those remains are affiliated to us.”
Jackie Swift is repatriation manager at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. and she’s of Comanche and Apache descent.
She says the museum tries to be flexible in the repatriation process.
“Every human being deserves a respectful burial. And in this case re-burial and so we really, really try and look at it from that perspective,” Swift said.
Back at the festival, John John Brown, an elder of the Muscogee Creek Nation, says he hopes more remains will be brought back to Ocmulgee while he’s still alive to see it.
“I do hope that at some point that they do realize that it's real important especially to the Native Americans, that their bones and remains go back to where they're meant to be,” Brown said.
And, for his people, that place is Ocmulgee.