Indigenous group says USF Tampa is not doing enough to prevent looting of Native American gravesites within forest preserve

Florida’s Unmarked Human Burial Act prohibits disturbing or looting Indigenous unmarked grave sites.

click to enlarge FIA organizers say they've removed a dozen shovels, numerous buckets, rakes, chairs, camping gear, sifting screens and litter from the site of Indigenous cemeteries that have been plundered by grave robbers. - C/O SHERIDAN MURPHY
c/o Sheridan Murphy
FIA organizers say they've removed a dozen shovels, numerous buckets, rakes, chairs, camping gear, sifting screens and litter from the site of Indigenous cemeteries that have been plundered by grave robbers.

The Florida Indigenous Alliance (FIA) announced that evidence of looting was discovered at a sacred Native American gravesite within the University of South Florida Forest Preserve (USFFP). The group is demanding that USF take action to protect the graves from further desecration.

For the past three weeks, members of FIA, along with USF students and faculty, have documented and shared substantial evidence of grave robbing with law enforcement.

“FIA organizers Sheridan Murphy and Stuart Flores, along with others, removed a dozen shovels, numerous buckets, rakes, chairs, camping gear, sifting screens and litter from the site of Indigenous cemeteries that have been plundered by grave robbers,” FIA wrote in a statement. “The items were given to the USF Police Department.”

Florida Statute 872.05, Florida’s Unmarked Human Burial Act, prohibits disturbing or looting Indigenous unmarked grave sites. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act further protects Indigenous cemeteries. Yet, the FIA says that over the past three weeks, nothing has been done to protect the area. 

Robberies of Native American gravesites occur across the country, despite the laws protecting them. Experts say racism toward Natives leads to looters disrespecting their ancestors’ graves. The grave robbers are rarely pursued by law enforcement.

The FIA shared a list of demands for USF to take steps to protect the site. 

  • Place adequate and visible “no trespassing” signs around the area.
  • Place adequate and visible signs noting it is illegal to dig in the area pursuant to Florida State Statute 872.05.
  • Review where it is appropriate to place fencing, and increase patrols and visibility of law enforcement to deter looters.

The USF Police Department and media officials at USF did not immediately respond to request for comment. 

In a statement to CL, USFPD said it immediately responded when it was made aware of possible damage to the preserve burial site in May. USFPD began to evaluate any criminal activity that may have occurred, and said the incident is an active investigation in coordination with “other state and local agencies to assess the extent of the damage and determine further investigative actions.”

“USFPD is committed to providing a safe environment in partnership with the community. While we recognize there has recently been a heightened interest in the site, unfortunately damage has been reported on the property in the past,” the statement added. “Though infrequent, USFPD has responded and investigated similar reports dating back many years.”

USFPD said it’s aware of FIA’s request for additional security and is working with USF leaders to “consider the appropriate next steps for restricting unauthorized access and discouraging further damage.”

Anyone with information regarding the case is being asked to contact the USF Police Department at 813-974-2628.

“While the USF Police Department has extended a hand in the dialogue of cooperation, which the FIA respects and appreciates, there has been no substantive action by USF,” the FIA wrote.

The FIA says that the USF administration has been made aware of the looting, and says that USF’s Request for Information (RFI) for development on USFFP may have brought attention to the gravesites, thus increasing the chance for looters to take notice. USF students and faculty members advised the FIA that much of the looting was recent and followed news about the RFI.

In April, The Tampa Bay Business Journal published an article announcing that USF leadership began seeking out developer ideas for the 769 acre USFFP property through an RFI. Many students, faculty, and community members were shocked because of the preserve’s biological and educational importance. A “Save USF Forest Preserve” campaign was launched, and their petition opposing development has over 21,000 signatures.

The FIA is entrenched in the fight against development of USFFP, but says it is currently critically concerned with the grave robbing and looting of the Indigenous cemeteries.

“The FIA cannot and will not tolerate the ghoulish robbing of Indigenous grave sites,” The FIA wrote. “If the University of South Florida intends to permit this, we will take action to protect the sites.”

Editor’s note: Some details of the burial site were left out of this story to respect FIA’s wishes that the site not be disturbed. This is a developing story.

UPDATED: 06/23/21 3:22 p.m. Updated with a statement from University of South Florida Police Department.

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About The Author

Justin Garcia

Justin Garcia previously wrote for the USA Today Network, The Economic Hardship Reporting Project, Scalawag Magazine, and various other news outlets. When he's not writing, Justin likes to make music, read, play basketball and spend time with loved ones. 

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