Binghamton University to return remains to Onondaga for reburial

By William Kates
Syrcacuse, New York (AP) 9-09

The Onondaga Nation will bury the ancestral remains of 180 individuals next month, ending a long-standing dispute with the New York State Museum.

The so-called Engelbert site remains were discovered in 1967 in Tioga County during construction of the Southern Tier Expressway and date to between 1000 and 1550. Many of the remains are just single bones, but in some instances there are nearly complete skeletons.

The remains were held by Binghamton University until they were transferred to the museum in 1989. The Onondagas have been seeking their return since 1993. They made a formal request to the federal National Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Review Committee last fall after the museum continued to balk at returning them.

Museum Director Cliff Siegfried said the time since last fall has been spent arranging the details of the return, which also includes hundreds of funerary objects still held by the university. They include stone tools, clay pottery, animal bone, shell, brass, charcoal, mica, soil, and botanicals.

The Onondaga will hold a private ceremony and bury the remains at an undisclosed location on the reservation, which sits just south of Syracuse, said Shannon Keller O’Loughlin, a lawyer for the Onondagas.

“The nation plans to do this quietly. It’s a reverent event, not an occasion for a huge party,” O’Loughlin said during late August.

Onondaga leaders were not available for comment about the return, which will take place sometime in early September.

The state museum delayed the return because it said it could not conclusively determine the cultural origins of the remains.

But the federal review panel said last fall the remains should be recognized as Onondaga and given to the tribe.


The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act passed by Congress in 1990 requires states to inventory, catalog, and where possible identify Indian burial sites. The review committee decides disputes between tribes and museums and federal agencies. The committee has heard a dozen disputes since its inception in 1993.

The state completed its inventory of the Engelbert site in 1998, but said it found two different cultures lived there.

State archaeologists said 10 burials at the Engelbert site were from after 1400 and were clearly identifiable as Susquehannock, based on the ceramics and copper artifacts found at the site. Because the Susquehannock do not exist today as a distinct cultural or political entity, the state determined the remains were culturally unidentifiable.

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

But the Onondagas 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 Onondagas lived mostly in central New York, but their territory extended south.

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

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