National committee sides with Native Americans over disputed collections.
By Mike McAndrew
As New York built Route 17, a worker driving a bulldozer uncovered an ancient burial site near the Southern Tier village of Nichols 41 years ago.
The mound, about 105 miles south of Syracuse, contained the remains of 180 Native Americans believed to have died between 1000 and 1500 AD.
After the remains were shifted between a few owners, they wound up in boxes in the collection of the New York State Museum in Albany.
The Onondaga Nation has been pressuring New York for two years to turn over the bones so it can rebury people they call their ancestors.
But the state museum has refused, claiming that the skeletons were too old to be culturally affiliated with the Onondaga.
Last Sunday in San Diego, a national advisory committee appointed by the U.S. interior secretary ruled that the museum should surrender the remains to the Onondaga.
In a 6-0 vote, the committee also recommended that to comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the state museum should change the way it decides the fate of Native American remains and burial objects in its collection.
Although the ruling was nonbinding, a state museum official said Tuesday that the state will most likely turn over the remains to the Onondaga.
But Lisa Anderson, the museum’s NAGPRA compliance officer, said that decision was not yet final. She said museum experts still believe the evidence is lacking to connect the remains from the graves, called the Engelbert site, to the Onondaga.
“There’s evidence suggesting there were different people (in that region) early on. And that there were many people,” she said. “Who became who isn’t something that is clear to every archaeologist.”
That doesn’t sit well with 79-year-old Onondaga Nation Chief Irving Powless, who battled the state museum for years in the 1980s and helped win the return of historic wampum belts.
“It’s about time this museum starts abiding by the law,” Powless said. “I don’t know why they wanted to keep the remains.”
The Onondaga and other Haudenosaunee nations claim their ancestors have lived in this region since the beginning of time, said Powless.
This emotionally charged battle is being played out across America as Native Americans try to pry centuries-old bones and sacred burial objects out of museum collections.
NAGPRA, the federal law that became effective in 1990, required museums and federal agencies to make public an inventory of any native remains and burial objects they possessed and, if they could be connected to an existing tribe, to repatriate them.
About 600 museums and federal agencies still have the remains of 118,000 Native Americans and more than 800,000 objects the institutions declared culturally unidentifiable with an existing tribe, according to the national NAGPRA program.
The State University at Binghamton continues to possess the burial artifacts pottery and other objects that were excavated from the Engelbert site.
The New York State Museum also possesses another 880 sets of culturally unidentifiable native remains, according to museum officials.
“This is a very important case nationally because a lot of museums employ similar tactics. Museums still have a huge resistance to NAGPRA,” said attorney Joseph Heath, the Onondaga Nation’s counsel.
Heath and an associate, attorney Shannon Keller O’Loughlin, presented the Onondaga’s views to the NAGPRA review committee last weekend in San Diego.
The state museum is run by the New York State Education Department.
Human remains are not displayed at the museum, Anderson said. Access to the museum’s collection of native remains is strictly controlled. Research and testing on the bones is permitted only to help the museum determine linkage with a specific culture.
But to the Onondaga and their lawyers, the state museum and others are demonstrating racial insensitivity.
The remains from the Engelbert site in Nichols will remain at the New York State Museum for at least several months, Anderson said. She said the state museum is required to make an announcement in the Federal Register if it plans to surrender the remains to the Onondaga. The museum will have to wait 30 days after the announcement is published to see if any other native nation contests that plan, she said.