Part of Rochester NY museum collection for decades, Oneida ancestors' remains return home
Nearly 20 Oneida Indian Nation ancestors' remains are returning to their homeland after generations spent held in a collection at the Rochester Museum & Science Center.
Among them are two teenage girls and eight adults. Others cannot be identified.
Their remains were exhumed from at least six burial sites in New York state and acquired through excavations, donations and purchases by the museum between 1928 and 1979.
At a solemn ceremony Wednesday, museum leaders and Oneida Indian Nation representatives sat at table draped by a wool blanket depicting the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s people, clans and nations, including the Oneida Indian Nation to whom these ancestors belonged.
Resting on the blanket were 19 tiny leather pouches – medicine bags made by members of the Oneida Indian Nation delegation who traveled to Rochester for the repatriation ceremony, which preceded the transportation of the remains and associated funerary objects to the land from which they were stolen.
“These bags are traditionally made when preparing for a significant journey,” said Oneida Indian Nation Enterprises CEO Ray Halbritter. “These bags will accompany our ancestors on a final journey, as their remains will be returned to our homelands until the end of time, that's where they will rest.”
This is the museum’s second repatriation of Oneida ancestral remains and objects since 2000. The artifacts are being returned under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990.
“I want to acknowledge that this repatriation should have occurred a long time ago,” said museum CEO Hillary Olson, “and to recognize that the ancestors in their belongings should never have been at the RMSC in the first place.”
The museum has shifted priorities over the past two years to focus on repatriating Indigenous remains and artifacts, officials said. RMSC is working with about 20 tribes and nations across New York state on those efforts, they added.
Notices of Inventory Completion documented in the Federal Register show that the museum made available for repatriation the remains of more than 980 individuals and more than 720 funerary objects related to 20 Native American tribes and nations. Those records were filed in late April through the end of May.
RMSC was reported earlier this year to have the 21st-largest collection of unrepatriated Indigenous remains in the United States, according to ProPublica. However, the recent federal filings suggest that the vast majority of remains and artifacts have been made available for repatriation. That would mean about 117 human remains and about 130 funerary objects are still within the museum's collection and unavailable for repatriation.
“We know that there's a lot more work to be done,” said Kathryn Murano Santos, the museum’s senior director of collections and exhibits. “And in fact, we are working in concert with the tribes and nations now following their lead and moving forward with their priorities to complete our repatriation work."
The Oneidas have been among them. And Halbritter said that repatriation ceremonies such as these hold great significance. Especially at a time when there may still be over 100,000 unrepatriated Native American remains at museums and institutions across the county – three decades after the NAGPRA law was passed.
“They are an acknowledgment of our ancestors’ status as real people who lived lives, rich lives and deserved the dignity in life and dignity in death,” he said.
He continued: “Every minute the remains of our ancestors and our cultural artifacts are not returned continues this shameful legacy of abuse inflicted upon Native peoples.”