By Arielle Farve Deere
EVANSVILLE, Ind. — A crisp breeze glided over the banks of the Ohio River in southwest
Indiana, where several Quapaw Nation Business Committee Members gathered to see more than 700 American Indian remains restored to their original burial place.
Quapaw Nation Business Committee Chairman Joseph Tali Byrd donned his apron adorned with traditional Quapaw regalia for the private ceremony. He felt profound gratitude at seeing the Mississippian ancestral remains put to rest.
"Thanks to everyone who made this repatriation successful," Byrd said. "The project was extremely emotional, and I feel blessed to take part in this historical event in conjunction with the Spring Equinox."
Indiana University directed repatriation efforts, working closely with the Quapaw Nation, the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, and the Shawnee Tribe throughout the process.
Aerial view of Mound A, the largest mound found at Angel Mounds.
The homecoming held life-long significance for former Quapaw Nation Business Committee Member Betty Beard Gaedtke. Like Byrd, she was deeply moved.
"This repatriation of our people was such a humbling and emotional experience," Gaedtke said. "This is something I will carry in my heart until I take my last breath."
The repatriation took a day to complete. However, the road to repatriation was much longer. The journey was almost a century-long process, beginning in the 1930s when the remains were first unearthed from the Angel Mounds National Historic Landmark and State Historic Site.
Angel Mounds was once the site of a flourishing Mississippian Indigenous city. More than 1,000 people lived there from about 1100 to 1450 A.D., erecting earthen mounds built to elevate essential buildings. The town was an important religious, political, and trade hub spanning 103 acres.
In 1939, archaeologist Glenn Black directed the site's excavation with workers from the federal Works Progress Administration. The team unearthed an archeological treasure house with more than 2 million artifacts, including a temple on top of one of the mounds. The collection was moved to IU Bloomington's Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology in 1971.
The passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990 required the return of Native American human remains and cultural items to Indigenous nations. The mandate empowered the Quapaw Nation, which was one of several modern tribes culturally linked to the Mississippian ancestors excavated in Angel Mounds, to protect and recover their heritage.
"NAGPRA is about human rights, respecting tribal sovereignty and federal law. We still have a long way to go, but we are so incredibly honored and committed to seeing this work completed," said IU NAGPRA director Jayne-Leigh Thomas in a media statement announcing the repatriation's completion.
The Quapaw Nation and other culturally linked tribal nations expressed their wish for IU to focus specifically on Angel Mounds during a National NAGPRA Consultation grant sponsored meeting in November 2016. A multi-year effort to organize the repatriation ensued, concluding with a homecoming that coincided with the Spring Equinox.
"Reburying during the spring equinox was meaningful on many different fronts and represented a spiritual healing of going forward," said Carrie Wilson, Quapaw Nation NAGPRA coordinator. "It was done humbly, with respect, and in a good way. We hope the community will continue to be supportive of the fact that this site is sacred to American Indians and be respectful."
A few months after the reburial, evidence that wounds of the past have begun to heal are apparent in the land—fresh blades of grass blanket the graves. Wildflowers decorate ceremonial mounds. Nature's adornments bespeak to an unexcavated archeological site, signifying that the Quapaw Nation's tribal sovereignty and cultural history are respected at the Angel Mounds State Historic Site.