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Ancient ancestor is laid to rest at museum

An American Indian whose remains date back 1, 000 years gets a dignified burial.

By KAMEEL STANLEY
Published July 2, 2007


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SAFETY HARBOR - As about 20 women in tunics and moccasins formed the funeral procession, the crowd grew silent.

About 200 people gathered at the Safety Harbor Museum of Regional History on Saturday morning for an event a millennium in the making.

Parents brought families, and virtually everyone had a camera. As the private ceremony involving a few people took place inside, the crowd hummed with anticipation.

Then, spectators watched, transfixed, as the remains of a Tocobaga Indian were carried out on a shroud-covered cedar board.

They surged forward when prayers spoken in Cherokee were offered up, and members of the Spirit People Intertribal Family used shells to scoop up dirt and pour it on the fresh grave.

And when the tribal leader raised his hand to signal the conclusion of the funeral, many murmured "Amen."

"He has gone home, " said tribal leader Robert Chastain.

Saturday's public burial of ancient American Indian remains was a rare and solemn event.

"The quietness, the stillness, was impressive, " said Eva Christu of Tarpon Springs, who took her family to the event. "It was a cultural experience."

The burial was the end of a nearly four-year journey for the museum, which received the bones in 2003 after someone left an unwanted box on the doorstep.

After going through a federally proscribed process, the museum's curators learned that the remains were that of a Tocobaga Indian who lived in the area more than 1, 000 years ago. Because they only had some fragments to study, researchers at the University of Florida couldn't determine the gender of the Indian or the cause of death.

"It's so educationally important to the community to see that ancient Native American remains are treated with such dignity, " said Walter Bowman, the museum's educational director.

Members of the Tocobaga, a tribe that settled in this part of the Tampa Bay area around 900 A.D., were known for their strength, fine looks and athleticism.

The numerous shell mounds found in the area are remnants of the Tocobaga culture. The tribe survived mostly on shellfish, and mounds were used as their "junk yards."

The Tocobaga lacked immunity to outside diseases, and illnesses brought by European explorers wiped out the tribe in less than a century.

Chastain, a member of the Reedy River Indian Community in South Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains, said he hoped the ceremony opened people's eyes about respecting other cultures.

"Our burial is usually done very privately and very quietly, " Chastain said. "It's always a good day when you can put an ancestor back."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4158.

[Last modified July 2, 2007, 00:21:02]


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