Courtesy of Jason Koski, Cornell University

Ray Halbritter, representative of the Oneida Nation, and Pres. Martha Pollack signed repatriation documents at Tuesday's ceremony at Sage Chapel.

February 22, 2023

Human Remains Returned to Oneida Nation After Six Decades of Possession by Cornell

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Cornell returned ancestral remains and funerary objects that had been kept in a University archive for six decades to the Oneida Indian Nation on Tuesday. President Martha Pollack apologized for the harm caused by this wrongful possession at a small Sage Chapel ceremony.

“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,” Pollack said at the ceremony.

According to a Notice of Inventory by the National Park Service available in the Federal Register, the remains were first found in August 1964. Local authorities were alerted when the remains were unearthed during the digging of a waterline ditch near an Oneida village at Onaquaga in Broome County, N.Y.

Prof. Kenneth Kennedy, anthropology, was then asked to provide a forensic identification of the remains, which he completed by Sept. 8, 1964, determining that the human remains belonged to a young adult male of Native American ancestry. While it is unclear if the human remains were transferred directly to Kennedy’s laboratory or held temporarily by the Old Onaquaga Historical Society, correspondence between the president of OOHS and Kennedy confirms that an agreement was reached to house the remains at Cornell, according to the Notice of Inventory.

In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act which provides guidelines for the repatriation and disposition of certain Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony. NAGPRA also required institutions with prior possession of Native American human remains to report them to the federal government.

These remains, however, were unreported until Kennedy’s death in 2014. The remains were then transferred to the Department of Anthropology where it was discovered that Kennedy’s original description of the human remains found did not note the presence of additional skeletal remains. These remains belonged to a child under four years old and a teenager under 20 years old. Due to their approximate age, their sex could not be determined. No individuals were identified and 22 associated funerary objects were also recovered. 

“I don’t want to single out Prof. Kennedy or anyone else in this case, but I think it’s fair to say that the archeologists and others now in our programs would not treat remains in the way they were treated in the past,” said Prof. Frederic Gleach, anthropology, in a statement to The Sun. “We are all committed to working respectfully and equitably with Native and other communities, and within the legal frameworks, including NAGPRA.”

Oneida Indian Nation representative Ray Halbritter attended Tuesday’s ceremony to speak about the importance of repatriation.

“The bodies of our ancestors, and the objects buried with them, were literally and unceremoniously removed from the Earth,” Halbritter said in his remarks at the ceremony. “They were put into the hands of institutions that would treat them as no more than museum items, merely of historical curiosity.”

The Indigenous Graduate Student Association released a statement to The Sun condemning the University for storing these remains.

“Cornell University administration must do a lot more than apologize and acknowledge,” the statement read. “This University is built on and with stolen Indigenous land and continues to hold other stolen Indigenous human remains.”

The IGSA is referring to a repatriation database generated by Propublica, which states that the University still has the remains of at least one Native American individual. However, this database has not been updated since Dec. 9. 

According to Gleach, the process of repatriation under the current guidelines of the NAGPRA can be slow. Halbritter said the process may have been delayed.

“The return of our ancestors to our sacred homelands is a basic human right,” Halbritter said. “It’s about our dignity. To delay their repatriation to us — presumably because admitting the wrongs was uncomfortable — is a continuation of the violations.”

Gleach defended the process in his statement to The Sun.

“The process of repatriation is often slowed by its very importance — that is, one wants to be sure it is done right, and not just done quickly,” Gleach said. “As in this case, and especially with older collections, it’s often complicated by having incomplete and sometimes incorrect information supplied with the materials, and by the complicated histories forced on indigenous communities by colonial policies and practices.”

According to Prof. Matthew Velasco, anthropology, the repatriation of the Oneida ancestors was the outcome of years of research and careful consultation with the tribal entities in central New York. Because the remains were rediscovered with little contextual information and because Kennedy’s correspondence related to the remains was rediscovered only during the Department of Anthropology’s archival research of Kennedy’s work, the process took a substantial amount of time to complete.

Despite this prolonged process, the Oneida Nation accepted the University’s efforts to return the remains to their rightful owners.

“We commend Cornell University for working with the Oneida Indian Nation to right this wrong,” Halbritter said. “You are confirming that the complexities of this process are worth solving and that the outcome is worth the time and cost required.”

To conclude the ceremony, Pollack and Halbritter each signed transfer documents.

“Our efforts to help bring the ancestors home cannot erase the harm done,” Velasco said in a statement to The Sun. “We are nonetheless humbled by the good will and generosity shown to us by our partners in the Oneida Indian Nation, and grateful that by working together, we were able to see that their ancestors were returned home and without further delay.”

However, the IGSA does not feel the University has done enough to address the many ways Cornell has interacted with Indigenous tribes.

“Repatriation is a political act,” the statement read. “Outside of positive PR, what will the University engage in to ensure accountability, redress and reparations?”

On Dec. 30, Governor Hochul vetoed an act that would have protected unmarked burials of Native Americans from being unintentionally excavated. The Morrill Act of 1862 distributed over 10 million acres of Native American land as a grant for the development of agricultural colleges, often taken through violence-backed treaties. Cornell was the largest beneficiary of the land-grant act.

“If dedicated to righting the wrongs, the IGSA demands the University put forth a statement condemning Governor Hochul [for] vetoing the Protection of Unmarked Graves Act, as well as a plan of action to address Cornell’s profiting of dispossessing Indigenous lands via the Morrill Act,” the IGSA said.