By: Bill Day, Director
Tunica-Biloxi Cultural and Historic Preservation
History is a continuum, and this applies to the Tunica-Biloxi. The struggle for federal "recognition" began in the 1930s when tribesmen led by Chief Eli Barbry made their way to Washington, D.C., in a Model T Ford. Fifty years and many efforts later, under the leadership of Eli's grandson, Earl J. Barbry, Sr., the U.S. Congress formally declared the Tunica-Biloxi to be a sovereign nation. This recognition placed the Tribe on equal footing with the fifty states and into a special relationship with the federal government.
It was with this status that the Tribe began legal effort which was to lead to recovery of the objects which had been pilfered from the graves of their ancestors, the so-called "Tunica Treasure." As with the quest for "recognition," litigation was a slow and agonizing process. This time, however, there was welcome assistance; the State of Louisiana joined the tribe in its lawsuit for the title to the artifacts. More than a decade was to pass in the courts, but the ruling finally rendered became a landmark in American Indian history. Upheld by the highest court, that decision, simply stated, said, "Grave goods belong to descendants." This rule of law not only triggered the largest return of American Indian grave goods ever, the "Tunica Treasure," but laid the foundation for a new federal law. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, in essence, declares that grave goods, and other objects which are held by museums, federal and state agencies, and which are identifiable as to a particular tribe, must be returned to that tribe.
Prior to actual receipt of the "Tunica Treasure," the Tribe decided to build a museum to house it. Since the graves from which the objects had been taken were destroyed in the looting, it was deemed impossible to rebury these funerary offerings with the persons to whom they belonged. The museum then would take the form of an ancient Tunica temple mound, and honor the memory of all the ancestors. The "Tunica Treasure" objects would be symbolically interred in the building, its earthen sides providing that missing element of the original burials.
However, when the "Tunica Treasure" was returned to the Tribe for placement in the new museum, it was discovered that the artifacts were seriously deteriorated. This condition resulted not only from their long stay in the ground but from that which followed: exposure to unstable air, humidity, and repeated handling while the ownership of the artifacts was being decided in the courts.
The Tribe had received not only the world's largest collection of Indian and European artifacts from the colonial period of the Mississippi Valley, but also the world's largest such collection most in need of preservation.
Professional artifact conservators brought in to survey the damage estimated a cost of over two million dollars for restoration. This was far beyond the financial resources of the Tunica-Biloxi but, undaunted by this newest turn of events, the Tribe responded. An environmentally-correct storage facility was fabricated from a salvaged highway refrigerated trailer. With the aid of private funding and donated equipment, a second highway trailer was converted into a highly sophisticated laboratory. A Historic Preservation Grant from the National Park Service was used to bring a team of professional conservators to the reservation to teach two tribal members how to save the "Tunica Treasure."
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