Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana

Mr Speaker and Honourable Members of the House of Commons,

  Today, you meet on the issue of Cultural Property: Return and Illicit Trade. As Chairman of the Sovereign Nation of the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana, United States of America, it is my wish that the concerns of the Chitimacha people be heard, so that a better understanding may occur between England and Native Americans. The issue of Cultural Property: Return and Illicit Trade is not one easily addressed. As I am unable to be here to address the House of Commons personally, I must pray that through my words, an understanding of our Chitimacha culture, beliefs and history will be created and touch each and every member.

  To understand our present, we must look to our past. Most people search at some point in their lives for an understanding of who they are, by performing genealogical studies. This endeavour is undertaken so that the individual and their families may establish a link with their past, to give them a sense of who they are at present. This link to our past is an integral part of who we are as Chitimachas.

  Recognised by the French and Spanish Governments in the 1700s, and recognised by the United States Federal Government on 31 August 1919, the Chitimacha are the only Federal Tribe in the State of Louisiana who still occupies a portion of our aboriginal homelands. The Reservation that we occupy is an original Chitimacha village. Our oral history tells that we have always been here. Our villages were located throughout the central to lower half of Louisiana to the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. We are a mound-building people. Our deceased have always been buried in earthen mounds. The last traditional mound burial was approximately 75 years ago. One year ago, we reburied the remains of ancestors who had been disturbed by a major oil company. For reasons unknown or understood, thousands of our ancestors were disrespectfully removed from their final resting place and taken away from their homelands. Through repatriation, we have brought home a significant number of our ancestors, whose remains were housed in various institutions in the United States. This process is ongoing, as it is our goal to rightfully return our ancestors to their home, where they may be properly, respectfully and ceremoniously laid to rest.

  We discovered that there are two of our Chitimacha female ancestors in the possession of the Natural History Museum in London. The ancestral remains are without question Chitimacha, documented as such by your museum. I am aware that your museum institutions have self-governing laws on their side, and that the law of NAGPRA does not apply in countries outside of the United States. But, under English Common Law, the dead cannot be owned. NAGPRA simply extends common law property rights to the remains of Native Americans. Museums will argue that these remains need to be in their possession because they may be of some "scientific value" in the future. It does not matter that our ancestors who are in possession of the different institutions in England are older than our mothers. They are still directly related to our people, known and documented to be Chitimacha. They are our ancestors. We need to put them to rest. Their spirits will not be at peace until they are home, and safely placed back in the earth where they belong, resting for eternity. It is unconscionable that our ancestors have been placed in boxes on shelves, put on display in cases, handled and examined for research purposes, knowing that they remain in a state of unrest. Mr Speaker, I ask each of the members of the House of Commons to search your heart and understand how we feel as people. I ask each member to put aside all logic from the scientific point of view. Open your hearts as one human being to another. For it comes down to a simple but important fact; all human beings, regardless of race, origin or creed deserve the right to be properly and respectfully buried at the time of death, without fear of disturbance or treatment as specimens. I ask the Honourable Members of the House of Commons to honour our request for the return of our ancestors.


  Attached to this submission of evidence is a formal letter addressed to the Speaker of the House of Commons and its members from Alton D LeBlanc, Jr, Chairman of the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana, United States of America. The Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana is a Federally recognised Native American Tribe, who still occupies a portion of their aboriginal homelands.


    (a)  The Natural History Museum, London, has in its possession the largest collection of indigenous human remains in the United Kingdom.

    (b)  The Natural History Museum has always refused requests to repatriate human remains on the grounds that it is constrained by the British Museum Act (1963), which disallows it to de-accession any items in its collection. The Museum also argues that its human skeletal collection is of "considerable scientific value".

    (c)  There are no national policies concerning the repatriation of human remains or cultural items in the United Kingdom. Unofficial policies are said to exist. Example: indication that the Conference of Directors of National Museums and Galleries developed an unofficial policy in 1993. To date, researchers have been denied access to this document even when specifically requested.

    (d)  United Kingdom Museums may, if they wish, follow the guidelines approved in 1994 by the Museum Ethnographers Group "for the storage, display, interpretation and return of human remains in United Kingdom museums" (Musuem's Journal July 1994:23). While these guidelines stress that respect and sensitivity must be accorded to requests for the return of human remains and that all curators should make themselves aware of the relevant issues, The MEG does not take any position as to whether remains should or should not be on display, let alone returned to relevant communities. Instead, the guidelines state that the "rules and governance of the museum or institution will dictate the parameters of any action", and that requests should be resolved on a case by case basis, with consideration of ownership, cultural significance, the scientific, educational and historical importance of the material, the cultural and religious values of the interested individuals or groups, and the strength of their relationship with the remains in question.

    (e)  The Department of National Heritage considers that repatriation is a matter for each individual museum. The Museums and Galleries Commission share this opinion.

    (f)  With the exception of one museum, Edinburgh University, all museums containing large collections of human remains have thus far refused to repatriate their holdings.

    (g)  The repatriation issue has been high profile in the past year, due to the return of Australian Aboriginal remains and the return of the remains of Long Wolf from Brompton Cemetery to Wounded Knee. The issue has attracted much media attention and has great public support.

    (h)  The two Chitimacha ancestral remains were once part of the large human skeletal collection at the University of Oxford, and were possibly part of the Christchurch College collection before that (as indicated by the "Ch, Ch" listed below) which suggests that they were collected very early on. Christchurch College is one of the oldest colleges at Oxford University and had one of the earliest collections of anatomical/anthropological "specimens".

    (i)  The first two references to the Chitimacha ancestral remains are in the Oxford archives. The first consists of two index entries in a card catalogue held at the Institute of Biological Anthropology; United States, Chetimacha Indian, Louisiana, Cranium. Adult. Female? M Knowles MS Catalogue p 21. Pres By Dr Danberry. Ch Ch 828ecc Am 30.907. United States, Chetimacha Indian Louisiana. Cranium. Young Adult. Female, 3rd Molars erupted but not fully in position. Basi-occipital united Fronto-occipital deformation? M Knowles, MS Catalogue, p 21 Am 30.908.

    (j)  The second reference is in a manuscript catalogue written by J Hull in 1960. 907 (skull of) Chetimacha Indian: no lower jaw Louisiana, USA. Presented by Dr Daubeny. Ch Ch Ch Ch OC 828e, in Cat Cran Var Human Race. 908 (skull of) Chetimacha Indian: no lower jaw. Louisiana, USA.

    (k)  The Natural History Museum, London, UK card catalogue entries are: My ID 151, Cranium, skull, status, present, CATNO: 907 Ch Ch 828c, Ref: Hull J 1960: (skull of) Chetimacha Indian: no lower jaw. Tribe: Chetimache. Donor: Daubeny, Dr Location: Natural History Museum, London. Oldlocs: Oxford University. The second crania entry: My ID 152, Brief, cranium, Status: present, Catno 908, Ref Hull, J 1960 Catalogue of Crania. Desc Hull 1960: (skull of) Chetimache Indian; no lower jaw, Tribe: Chetimache, Old locs: Oxford University.

    (l)  Through the English Museums own documents we see that our ancestral remains are definitely identified as Chitimacha (Chetimache).

    (m)  Under English Common Law, the dead cannot be owned. If this is so, then how is it that English museums have in their possession and ownership human remains? It is also English law that any time human remains are discovered or unearthed, they must be reburied immediately.

    (n)  The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 is a law that is in force in the United States of America. But, NAGPRA is simply an extension of common law property rights that is given to the remains of Native Americans.


  (a)  In Section 2, part I, the catalogue identification card states Fronto-occipital deformation. It is a well-known and well-documented fact that the Chitimacha in pre-historic and early historic periods practised head deformation as part of their culture (Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 137: Indians of the Southeastern United States, John R Swanton: page 540).

    (b)  Recognised by the French and Spanish Governments in the mid 1700s and by the United States of America, the Chitimacha are an intact Federally recognised Tribe still occupying a portion of their aboriginal homelands.

    (c)  As leader of the Chitimacha people, Chairman Alton D LeBlanc, Jr is knowledgeable about the Chitimacha culture and sensitive to the issues of return of Chitimacha ancestors.

    (d)  Ancestral remains, even if taken from burial grounds prior to laws about such matters designating these acts as illegal, should not remain in museums' collections simply because there were no laws in place at the time this desecration took place. Ignorance which occurred in the past, is no excuse for deliberate ignorance of the present, when there are now laws in place for protection against grave robbing and owning human remains.

  It is the hope of our people that we will be able to bring our ancestors home where they belong, to be respectfully and honourably returned to the earth, where they will finally be able to rest in eternal safety and peace. England has the opportunity, through new government legislation, to become a leader of many European institutions by setting a precedent for the return of aboriginal remains home to their descendants. The Select Committee hearing titled Cultural Property: Return and Illicit Trade is an appropriate title. Please hold true to this sentiment.

March 2000

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