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Onondaga ceremonially buries 180 ancient ones after repatriation

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – The Onondaga Nation buried the remains of 180 ancestors and more than 1,000 funerary objects in a private ceremony in early September after repatriation by the New York State Museum.

The nation did not disclose the date, time or place of the private ceremony.

The museum was ordered to repatriate the remains and their associated objects after the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Review Committee voted 5-1 last fall that the ancestors were affiliated with the Onondaga Nation.

The museum continues to hold the remains of approximately 900 ancestors. A museum spokeswoman said the institution is working its way through a process to repatriate the additional remains.

The remains of 188 ancestors were found in 1967 and 1968 in what is known as the Engelbert site in Tioga County during gravel mining for construction of an expressway. Museum archeologists excavated and removed the remains and managed to freeze the highway development for a few seasons during which additional excavations were conducted by the State University of New York at Binghamton.

In 1989, “a minimum of 180 individuals,” were transferred to the New York State Museum to be documented, according to the Interior Department’s inventory notice.

“No one knows what happened to the other eight ancestors,” said Shannon Keller O’Loughlin, an attorney for the Onondagas, who specializes in monitoring the whereabouts of sacred objects and returning them to their relations for proper burial.

The archeologists determined that the Engelbert site “is a large, multicomponent habitation site that was used intermittently over a period of about 5,000 years. The site was also used as a burial site during at least two different periods – about A.D. 1000 to the 1400s, and the late 1500s to possibly the early 1600s,” according to the inventory notice.

Despite that evidence, the museum claimed the ancestors were unaffiliated until the NAGPRA Review Committee decision last year.

Onondaga Nation is the central fire of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and is entrusted with the task of retrieving sacred objects for the nations of the confederacy and redistributing them to the individual nations when possible.

Onondaga has been seeking the return of the ancestors held by the New York State Museum since the early 1990s.

“The New York State Museum called the first consultation in 1995. At that point they merely consulted in general about the almost 1,000 human remains in their collection that they claimed were unaffiliated. In 2003, the Haudenosaunee Standing Committee and the nation told the New York State Museum that these remains were affiliated and they wanted them repatriated. Nothing happened,” O’Loughlin said. The committee represents the six nations of the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) Confederacy – Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora.

Three years ago the nations asked for a consultation with the museum and again asserted affiliation and requested repatriation.

“The museum says, ‘Yes, we’ll repatriate, please put your claims in writing,’ so the nation did, and the museum came back and said, ‘No, the remains aren’t affiliated,’” O’Loughlin said.

The nations’ appeal to the NAGPRA Review Committee last October resulted not only in the order to repatriate the ancestors, but also a 6-0 vote compelling the museum to re-evaluate its repatriation policy.

Lisa Anderson, the museum’s NAGPRA coordinator and curator of bioarchaeology, said the museum will continue to work with the nations.

“We will continue to consult with the nations to resolve the position of all the rest as well as the NAGPRA ruling that we need to re-examine what they thought was our policy. We didn’t have a policy. There were some guidelines that were drafted a long time ago even before there were regulations in place where everything we did was upfront and in the open. As soon as the NAGPRA regulations were passed, that’s really what our policy is. We follow those regulations,” Anderson said.

The claim by museums and other institutions that the ancestors’ remains and other sacred objects are “unaffiliated” is almost universal, despite the fact that the remains are found in territories where known indigenous peoples have lived for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

“There seems to be an acceptable norm from a lot of major museums, including the New York State Museum, by stating that they have theories that say, for instance, the Onondaga Nation didn’t exist until contact. I guess when the Europeans named the Onondaga Nation ‘the Onondaga Nation,’ is when they became the Onondaga Nation,” O’Loughlin said.

The museums and institutions also frequently base their claim of no affiliation on archeological evidence that an individual nation didn’t begin its identity until a certain time.

The New York State Museum claimed the Haudenosaunee Confederacy came into existence sometime between 1450 and 1500 even though the nations themselves have evidence that it was formed between 1,000 and 1,100 years ago.

“The oral history of the confederacy says that these individual nations were already here and came together to form the confederacy. The archeologists look at pottery and see that there was a kind of generic pottery throughout the northeast and then they say so, therefore, there wasn’t a particular nation here,” O’Loughlin said, adding that archeologists generally don’t give credence to oral history.

“But NAGPRA requires that you look at a totality of evidence, not just archeological evidence, which isn’t conclusive one way or the other. It says you look at oral history, cultural practices, material culture and other evidence in making a determination.”

Anderson said the museum is not conducting research on the remains, but continues to document them.

The ancestors’ remains are stored in boxes at the museum.

“It’s not clear why they’re so reluctant to repatriate them. They’re not fulfilling any purpose of the museum from what we can see – to educate or for research. I think if people outside that small archeological community understood that they are people’s relations sitting in boxes maybe that would put some pressure on them,” O’Loughlin said.

Onondaga will continue to press for the return of the ancient ones.