By Sue Eiholzer from NOON, Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation
Repatriation is the returning of cultural items — human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony — to lineal descendants. In the United States this refers most often to Native Americans and is covered by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA). Native American cultural items and remains have been and are sometimes valued by non-native individuals seeking to collect or sell them. Other times they were turned over to universities or museums, studied, stored and often forgotten.
While NAGPRA is a beginning and commendable, it can be very complicated, as in the case of the National Museum of the American Indians which has developed a detailed process for repatriation. The US Government Accountability Office notes that a 2020 report estimated that there are more than 116,000 Native American human remains still in museums and other collections. So there is still much work to be done.
Approximately, forty-six states have passed their own laws governing the steps required when Native American burial sites were discovered in their state. Why did the New York Legislature unanimously pass the Protection of Unmarked Graves Act? Why did other states pass their own acts into law? Because NAGPRA does not cover the discovery of burial sites or how materials discovered should be handled. It only covers institutions that receive federal funding and have been given remains and artifacts. It specifies practices to follow in repatriating cultural items to the appropriate descendants.
Cornell has recently returned native remains dug up in 1964. This is an example of how discoveries were often handled in the past. Cornell President Martha E. Pollack said, “We’re returning ancestral remains and possessions that we now recognize never should have been taken, never should have come to Cornell and never should have been kept here.”
The University of Kansas (KU) has hired a repatriation program manager to facilitate the return of 380 ancestors and 554 burial objects university staff found on campus in September 2022.
Representatives of the Haudenosaunee were in Geneva, Switzerland recently to take back sacred objects on display at the Museum of Ethnography. Some items had been in the museum’s posession since 1825. Themuseum has been inviting and cooperating with traditional communities to identify the objects that could be returned giving priority to human remains, funeral artefacts and sacred objects. One man seeing the objects on displayand and bringing it to the director’s attention started this process.
Several years ago, the director of the Onondaga Historical Association in Syracuse was challenged by an Onondaga Clan Mother to return the remains of her ancestors that they had in their possession. Because he was new to his job, he was not familiar with everything OHA had in their collection. When he checked with his staff, he discovered that she was correct. Remains and sacred materials are often stored away and forgotten. OHA repatriated the remains and they were re-interred at the Onondaga Nation. OHA also returned cultural items.
Unfortunately, the human rights of Native Americans have too often been disrespected out of ignorance or in the name of “progress” or to expedite financial avarice. If you happen to find what you suspect is a burial site, please notify authorities and encourage them to follow appropriate procedures. If you learn about an institution or visit a museum that has cultural material in their possession, let the appropriate individuals know about NAGPRA and also your discomfort with their collection. The National Park Service provides extensive guidelines. Share this information with friends and family to educate more people about this injustice to the original peoples of our land.
In the February newsletter, we highlighted this issue when New York Governor Kathy Hochul vetoed the Protection of Unmarked Graves Act, which had passed both houses of the New York State legislature unanimously. If you live in New York and have not contacted Gov. Hochul, you may want to let her know your feelings about her veto at Governor Contact Form | Governor Kathy Hochul (ny.gov) or calling her at 1-518-474-8390. If she does not hear feedback that her constituents are unhappy with her decision, she will have no reason to act differently in the future.