By Tara Backhouse, Museum Collections Manager
Right here in South Florida, the Ah-Tah-Thi Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Reservation works hard to share the Seminole story and to represent the Tribe’s interests in all our work. We are able to work with many museums and other institutions in Florida, and we help them tell the Seminole story to all their visitors. But did you know there’s another museum that strives to do that for all of Indian Country? It’s the National Museum of the American Indian, commonly known as NMAI, and you may not know that there’s been a connection between the Seminole Tribe of Florida and that institution for over two decades.
Although NMAI opened the doors of its newest Washington DC facility in 2004, it has a much longer history. Its first facility in New York City became part of the Smithsonian Institution in 1989. Coincidentally, this was also when the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum was chartered and began building its collection. At the time the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki opened in 1997, we had an extensive working relationship with NMAI. The Tribe consulted with their professionals about how to build the world-class facility we now have on Big Cypress. And when it came time to build our permanent exhibits, NMAI loaned us pieces from their collection in order to help us tell the Seminole story.
When they opened in Washington, DC, many tribes were very excited. People from the Seminole Tribe joined others at the opening ceremonies to lead a procession on the National Mall to show their support. The Seminole Tribe had a strong presence that included the Seminole Color Guard and Tribal government officials.
If you go to NMAI, you might be surprised that the Seminole Tribe is only represented in a small way. Remember that NMAI has the responsibility of advocating for all the indigenous people represented in their collection. That’s a big job. Come to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki for a total Seminole focus. Go to NMAI to broaden your horizons and see the connections that spring to life when you do that.
One of the most important ways that NMAI fights for native rights is in the area of repatriation. Museums had long collected the remains of Native people without permission from their Tribes and in violation of their cultural traditions for caring for those who have passed on. Native peoples wanted and are still fighting for all Museums to return the remains of their people. Responding to outrage over the state of national repatriation efforts, the National Museum of the American Indian Act was enacted in 1989. Under this law, the National Museum of the American Indian was established along with protocols for repatriating ancestors who had been wrongfully taken. NMAI has led repatriation efforts within the Smithsonian Institution and has returned over 5000 ancestors to their homes, getting them out of the hands of the non-native institutions that have allowed research and other culturally insensitive treatment of those remains for many years.
But repatriation is a work in progress and many Seminole ancestors have still not been returned home. NMAI does a great job with repatriation, but all the museums within the Smithsonian Institution are managed differently. This is why the Seminole Tribe’s Museum and Tribal Historic Preservation Office have initiated the #NoMoreStolenAncestors campaign. Join us in our fight to advocate for the return of Seminole ancestors at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Our work and your voice will not only help to address historic and current offenses to the Seminole Tribe but also those committed against our fellow tribes across Indian country. Thank you for your support!