Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Three years after the South Florida Water Management District infuriated the Seminole tribe by allowing archaeologists to exhume and relocate the ancient remains of 56 men, women and children to make way for an Everglades restoration project, the district has agreed to dig back up and relocate all 901 bones and 235 teeth to their original resting place.
The cost to taxpayers is estimated at $1.8 million but the cost to the district’s reputation among the region’s tribes — the Seminole and Miccosukee — remains to be seen. In a written agreement made public Monday, the district’s executive director, Melissa Meeker, said the district is “strongly committed to working with our partners in the Seminole Tribe of Florida on Everglades restoration in a way that protects both the ecosystem and the region’s history.”
The burial sites are within a 4,656-acre project that the district had planned on flooding with 18-inches of water in its efforts to restore the Everglades. The controversy over the relocation of the more than 500-year-old burial site has halted construction of some of the $248 million man-made wetland, which was scheduled to be completed this summer.
The rift began after the Miccosukee and Seminole tribes signed off on the exhumation and relocation project, after being told that archaeologists hired by the district would carefully and respectfully re-bury the miscellaneous collection of bones and teeth that had been found at a remote location in Hendry County.
But the more the archaeologists dug, the more they found and they updated the district, the Army Corps of Engineers and the state Historic Preservation Office. While the district often encounters archaeological artifacts and remains, water managers tried to keep this case quiet, because the find was more extensive than expected and the remains had already been moved and reburied by the time the tribes learned the extent of the find.
When the tribes learned that what they had been told were some teeth and bones was actually a pre-Colombian burial ground, they demanded the remains be returned to their original resting place.
Tribal representatives walked out of a meeting on May 12, 2010 with the district, the corps and state archaeologists when the agencies tried to unravel what happened rather than focus on the fate of the disturbed remains. The Seminoles have insisted that all the remains be returned to their original resting place, positioned exactly as they were found.
The tribes, district and other agencies agree that all of the remains “may not be fully recoverable” due to damage by animals and other natural events but that the district “will makes its best efforts to recover all cultural items and excavated materials.” The agreement reached this week requires the district to follow the tribes’ rules: Flat shovels must be used to scrape the soil until white sand covering each burial site is exposed. Then, a hand-trowel must be used.
To ensure the remains are not mixed, only one burial site at a time can be worked on. The bones should be reburied within two days and the orientations must match the original position. For example, some of the bodies were lying face up, other face down and some on their sides. Most were buried with the head facing east.
Archaeologists working on the excavation, transportation and relocation also must meet standards set by the Department of Interior and if new remains or artifacts are discovered, the district “will immediately halt all activity within the vicinity of the discovery” and notify all parties, according to the agreement.
Besides the archaeological challenge of digging up and reburying the remains, engineers have been working on a plan to build a berm around the original burial site and install pumps to keep the site dry when the surrounding area is flooded. Recent timelines show the archeological work beginning in the fall — after the rainy season — and ending in the summer 2013.
Stephen Walker, attorney for the Seminole Tribe, said in a written statement that the agreement “demonstrates that it is possible to achieve ecological restoration in a manner that respects the importance of the tribe’s cultural traditions, and we hope that this cooperative effort will become the model for future restoration projects.”