Cornell University returned ancestral remains to the Oneida Indian Nation that were inadvertently dug up in 1964 and stored for decades in the school archive.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, or NAGPRA, provides a process for federal agencies and museums to receive federal funds to repatriate or transfer from their collections certain Native American cultural items such as human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and items of cultural patrimony.

The Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, has stewardship responsibility for one of the largest collections of museum objects in the Department of the Interior. Almost all of these collections are housed in non-federal repositories.

NAGPRA also provides a process for Federal agencies to address new discoveries of Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural property intentionally excavated or inadvertently discovered on Federal or Tribal lands. Those processes are detailed in the regulations available here.

"New" discoveries are those events occurring after November 16, 1990, when NAGPRA was enacted.

Consultation with Indian tribes, Alaska Native Corporations, and Native Hawaiian organizations is a critical component for addressing the identification, treatment, and disposition of Native American cultural items.

 

Cornell University Returns Ancestral Remains to the Oneida Indian Nation

In August of 1964, remains were unearthed on an upstate New York farm east of Binghamton when digging a ditch for a water line. Police called a Cornell anthropology professor who determined that the remains belonged to a young adult male of Native American ancestry. It is believed that the remains are more than 300 years old. Repatriation records recently filed with the federal government indicate the remains represent "at minimum" of three people.

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The remains were stored on campus until the professor's death in 2014, when they were transferred to the anthropology department. They were rediscovered by colleagues during an archival inventory.

Twenty-two “funerary” objects that were interred with the remains also were returned. The objects include pieces of pottery, a piece of leather, a large mammal skull fragment, and an acorn.

Cornell President Martha E. Pollack said at a small repatriation ceremony Tuesday,

“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,”

At the repatriation ceremony, Pollack apologized on behalf of the Ithaca Ivy League school, noting the "disrespect shown to the ancestors."

Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter said at the ceremony:

“These individuals, an adult man, a child of four years or younger and another child or adolescent of undetermined age, will be once again laid to rest in the traditions of our people,”

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