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Podcast Review: Skeletons in The Closet-Code Switch

The Code Switch is a podcast created by NPR that is about race. The host, Gene Demby, has conversations with guests about how race affects society. For Native American Heritage Month, I will focus on their episode “Skeletons in The Closet.” Demby and NPR Producer, Kumari Devarajan, talk about how thousands of Native American remains are stored a building that belongs to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Demby talks about the fight between the museum and Native American tribes in keeping the remains at that location. Guests Tina Osceloa (a member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida) and Bill Billeck (a staff member at the Museum of Natural History) were interviewed. This podcast does an excellent job of uncovering a dark secret in United States history. You will be infuriated at the seizure of thousands of Native American remains and the bureaucracy involved in returning them to their rightful tribes. 

I was bewildered in the opening minute of this episode upon hearing thousands of Native Americans remains are stored in an unmarked building in Maryland. I was hardly relieved upon hearing the building is owned by The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Instead I wondered- how this could possibly happen? You learn in the podcast how the remains of Native Americans were dug up in the 1800s by Americans and stored in various museums until they landed up at the Museum of Natural History. Native Americans, such as Tina Osceloa, have fought hard to have them returned to their homeland.

Tina Osceloa advocates on behalf of the Seminoles in Florida for the return of remains back to their tribe. It is estimated that around 1,500 remains were excavated from there between the late 1800s and 1930s. Though museums have returned remains to some tribes, Osceloa is frustrated with the red page she has run into when trying to get answers from The Museum of Natural History. You can understand her anger hearing the numerous excuses she was given on why they cannot be returned. It is especially heartbreaking to hear the affect that this has on Seminole people. Osceloa talks about how the spirits of ancestors are believed to live on after death and they cannot rest in peace if they are removed from their homeland. The facts about the disinterment of remains and the explanation of Seminole faith will make you sympathetic to Osceloa and other Native Americans whose ancestors have been stolen.

Bill Billeck, a staff member of the Museum of Natural History, was interviewed to illustrate the museum’s perspective on the topic. He describes how there is a need for “strong” evidence to connect the remains with Native American tribes. An example of this is a cultural affiliation rather than a biological one (this is explained more in the podcast). The problem with this is that records kept about remains are disorganized and missing information. Towards the end of the episode, Billeck recognizes the museum’s flaws and talks about their new policy which allows tribes to make claims on remains if there is not an exact affiliation. This comes as a surprise because for much of the episode he comes across as bureaucratic. It is a relief to hear that the Museum of Natural History is open to negotiating with Native American tribes and admit their horrible mistakes of the past.

With the release of this episode by Code Switch, I hope that the process of returning Native American remains will accelerate drastically. I believe you will feel the same way while listening to this podcast. The interview with Tina Osecloa and the background information discussed reveals a grave injustice that has been done to Native Americans. NPR’s Code Switch is an educational podcast that spotlights important issues that do not always make the news. I learned a lot from just listening to one episode of this insightful podcast.

Code Switch can be listened to on the NPR website or numerous podcast apps.

To learn more about the history and culture of Native Americans, place a hold on a book in our Native American collection.

Mike Walsh

Adult Services-Will Branch