In a growing dispute over a collection of "archaic" human remains exhumed from the Del Rio area, archeologists are all over the map. The Witte Museum, which began its collection in 1928, is adamant: The bones will stay put.
However, an equally impassioned assortment of Native American tribal members, activists, and local students are taking their case public tomorrow in the first of what they promise will be a sustained drive to have the collection returned and reburied with a properly respectful ceremony.
Federal law requires those remains that can be definitively linked to modern-day – federally-recognized, modern-day, the hitch – tribes must be returned to the tribal representatives. Problem is, very few recognized tribes exist in Texas. That's not to say, there weren't (and aren't) lots of indigenous descendents here. In fact, only about five percent of the 215,000 Texans that identify themselves as Native American are federally-recognized tribal members, according to Milo Colton, St. Mary's University pre-law advisor active in Indian issues.
Activists and anthropologists alike agree the recognition process is difficult.
"It doesn't matter whether you're Cherokee, Carizzo, you're Lipan, Mescalero, Seminole," said David Ortiz, board president for the American Indian Movement, Texas Chapter. "If you are a descendent of the indigenous people of this land, when you see those bones, you might not be a direct descendent, but it just does something to you. It hurts."
Tomorrow, the bone battle that's been brewing behind the scenes spills into the streets with a morning protest outside the Witte.
--- Here's the press release: INDIAN ALERT!!! ON SATURDAY, MAY 31, 2008-SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS, BEGINNING AT 9:30AM - AMERICAN INDIANS WILL HOLD A RALLY IN FRONT OF THE WITTE MUSEUM DEMANDING THAT THE MUSEUM, WHICH CURRENTLY HOLDS INDIAN REMAINS IN ITS COLLECTIONS, RETURN THE REMAINS TO THE INDIAN PEOPLE FOR REBURIAL. ALL INDIANS AND NON-INDIANS OFFENDED BY THE WITTE SACRILEGE ARE INVITED TO ATTEND. THE WITTE MUSEUM IS LOCATED AT: 3801 BROADWAY, SAN ANTONIO , TEXAS . AMERICAN INDIAN STUDENTS ASK WITTE MUSEUM TO RETURN BONES OF THEIR PEOPLE FOR REBURIAL
On April 22, 2008, three American Indian students at St. Mary's University sent a letter asking the Witte Museum to return American Indian human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony to the American Indian community of Texas for reburial. Indian students Dallas Colton, Marie Crabb and Angelica Villarreal want the bones and artifacts reburied at the original grave sites.
The Indian remains were taken by non-Indians from sacred burial grounds at Fate Bell Rock Shelter in Seminole Canyon State Park about 45 miles west of Del Rio and White Shaman Site Rock Art Foundation Preserve, located about one mile west of Seminole Canyon State Park on Highway 90.
In their letter to the museum, the students stated that "we have made several trips in recent years to the Fate Bell Rock Shelter in Seminole Canyon and the White Shaman Site to study the ancient rock art of Texas Indians.
"We were saddened and hurt to discover that the bodies of eight American Indians at the Fate Bell Rock Shelter and two American Indians at the White Shaman Site Rock Art Foundation Preserve were dug up, along with funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony and removed to the Witte Museum ."
They also said that they "believe a great sacrilege and injustice has been committed against our" Indian people when they "were removed from their burial grounds and the embrace of Mother Earth."
On May 1st, Marise McDermott, CEO and President of the of the Witte Museum, stated that the law (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) does not apply to the museum when it comes to digging up American Indian graves.
McDermott also indicated that the bones in the museum's collection belong to "an archaic hunter/gatherer" people not related to today's Indians.
Attorneys for the Civil Rights Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (CRLDEF) have also sent a letter on behalf of the students, demanding that the bones of the Indians currently in possession of the Witte Museum be returned for reburial.