Feds: Remains should be returned to Onondaga Nation

By William Kates
Syracuse, New York (AP) 10-08

The New York State Museum should return the disputed centuries-old remains of at least 180 individuals to the Onondaga Nation, according to a federal review panel.

The state museum had said it could not conclusively determine the cultural origins of the remains, which were discovered in 1967 in Tioga County and date to between 1000 and 1550.

But the National Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Review Committee voted 5-1 during a meeting Oct. 11 in San Diego that the remains should be recognized as Onondaga and returned to the tribe within 90 days, the Onondaga’s attorney, Joseph Heath, said Oct. 15.

“We are in the middle of discussing it among our hierarchy and counsel. We obviously want to do the right thing and I can’t imagine that we won’t follow the recommendation of the committee,” said Lisa Anderson, coordinator for the state’s Indian repatriation program.

“Before we started turning over remains, we wanted to be entirely sure we were returning them to the right people,” she added.

For the Onondaga, the decision is a significant one, Heath said.

“The Onondaga Nation believes it has a spiritual obligation to take care of and protect all the ancestors within its aboriginal territories. These ancestors ... are part of a shared identity and culture,” Heath said.

“Death is a journey with the Creator. When these bones were dug up, the journey was interrupted for these individuals,” Heath said.

The remains were unearthed by a bulldozer during construction of the Southern Tier Expressway west of Binghamton near Nichols. The so-called Engelbert site sits on a knoll 20 to 30 feet above the floodplain of the Susquehanna River, located about 200 feet away.

The remains were originally held by the State University of New York at Binghamton until March 1989 when they were transferred to the New York State Museum.

The remains represent at least 180 individuals, including about 122 adults, according to state archaeologists. Many are single bones, but in other instances there were nearly complete skeletons.

In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, requiring states to inventory, catalog, and where possible, identify, Indian burial sites.

The state completed its inventory of the Engelbert site in 1998.

“It’s a complicated site. There were two different people who lived there,” Anderson said.

According to the state museum, there are 10 burials at the Engelbert site from after 1400 that are clearly identifiable as Susquehannock, based on the ceramics and copper artifacts found at the site. Because the Susquehannock don’t exist today as a distinct cultural or political entity, the remains are culturally unidentifiable, Anderson said.

Additionally, the Susquehannock traded and lived among many tribes throughout the Susquehanna River valley from upstate New York down through the Chesapeake Bay region.

“Our position was we need to contact all these other groups before we could reach a decision. It was our impression that there were others interested,” Anderson said. However, no other tribes have made any claims on the remains.

The majority of the remains were from a second group of burials that predated the Susquehannock. State archaeologists, however, said they were considered a different people from the Onondaga and also not culturally identifiable with any modern tribes.

But the Onondaga argued that the state based its conclusion on purely scientific evidence, and ignored the federal law’s instructions to consider a “totality of evidence,” including kinship, anthropological evidence, linguistics, folklore and oral tradition.

Historically, the Onondaga lived mostly in central New York, but their territory stretched into the Southern Tier, where they lived near the Cayuga and Oneidas, two other members of the six-nation Iroquois Confederacy.

“In their oral tradition, they have been here since the beginning of time. But certainly, they’ve been here longer than 500-600 years,” Heath said. Some scholars have found evidence dating the confederacy back to the 900s, which means the separate tribes have been here much longer, Heath noted.

Also according to Onondaga oral history, the tribe adopted the Susquehannock peoples and brought them into the confederacy, Heath said. Linguistically, the Susquehannock language is most closely related to the Onondagan dialect of Iroquioan, he added.

On the Net:

New York State Museum: www.nysm.nysed.gov

National NAGPRA: http://www.nps.gov/history/nagpra