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Debate: What To Do With Artifacts Unearthed By Irma?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When Hurricane Irma slammed into South Florida, its powerful winds tore trees out of the ground. On Marco Island, those downed trees unearthed a trove of Native American artifacts. Archaeologists were thrilled and plan to display them at a local museum, although some Native Americans do not want that to happen. Here's Quincy Walters of member station WGCU.

QUINCY WALTERS, BYLINE: Marco Island is a ritzy part of southwest Florida near Naples filled with upscale subdivisions and manicured lawns. One neighborhood is known as Indian Hills and includes two acres of preserved Native American land. Rachael Kangas walks through an area with 20 downed trees. She's with Florida's Public Archaeology Network and is in an area called Otter Mound Preserve, and this park was used as a refuse pile by the Calusa tribe.

RACHAEL KANGAS: Even this trash is really a treasure to archaeologists.

WALTERS: The Calusa first started using this mound for trash starting as early as 700 A.D. She kneels down, peering into the craters where the tree roots used to be.

KANGAS: And just in this one root ball - so we see shells. This is a lightning whelk. So they would take this large lightning whelk, they would sharpen one end. they would put a hole in one side and a notch in the other and then attach a handle to it. So this is, you know, what you would use to cut down a tree.

WALTERS: Kangas says archeologists have known artifacts have been buried here for years, but because it's county-owned land, they were prevented from excavating. She says the relics being naturally unearthed is an opportunity.

KANGAS: We want to take as little as we can. We want this site to stay as intact as we can.

WALTERS: Researchers found about 200 pieces of tools, glass, pottery and shells from the site. They plan to house them at the Marco Island Historical Museum and loan them to other institutions for display and research. Museum curator Austin Bell says it's important to bring the story of the Calusa to more people.

AUSTIN BELL: Because they lived here for hundreds, if not thousands, of years and were able to sustain themselves on the marine environments around them without really impacting it to the extent that they, you know, weren't able to continue to thrive.

WALTERS: The Calusa thrived here peacefully until the 16th century, when Europeans found them, introducing disease. Some Calusa headed to Cuba. Kangas, the archaeologist, says she thinks others stuck around.

KANGAS: I absolutely believe that some of them, you know, stayed, and continue to live here in South Florida, and kind of got pushed deeper and deeper into the Everglades and joined up with other Native Americans from different tribes.

WALTERS: Betty Osceola from the Miccosukee tribe, a tribe from the Everglades, says she doesn't speak for all Native Americans, but she is mad about archaeologists taking things from the preserve.

BETTY OSCEOLA: Even though a tree unearthed them, I think the people that existed before should not have their artifacts taken and put in a museum or carted off anywhere else.

WALTERS: Osceola says the respectful thing to do would be to cover the artifacts back up. She says removing these artifacts upsets ancestral spirits. But archaeologist Kangas says that would be a missed opportunity to understand the past.

KANGAS: I like to think about archaeological sites as puzzles, so every time you take one of those puzzle pieces and put it somewhere else, if nobody knows where it came from, then that puzzle just kind of gets destroyed.

WALTERS: Kangas says history needs to be preserved, even when that history is revealed by a hurricane.

For NPR News, I'm Quincy Walters on Marco Island, Fla.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVENINGS' "SAONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.