Sac and Fox Nation
wants its grandfathers back.
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.,
. 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
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
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
"Basically, the state kept saying, 'We're gonna ignore
federal law and follow our state law,'" says Travis Willingham
tribe's Kansas City-based attorney. A spokesman for the Missouri
Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, says it does not comment on
The Missouri law proscribing how to deal with
has been on the books since 1987. But state records
show that only a handful of people have ever been prosecuted for
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.