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A sacred trust: BU hosts Iroquois repatriation delegation

With the time-consuming process of documenting box upon box of Native American remains, sacred objects and grave goods behind her, Nina Versaggi, director of the Public Archaeology Facility, is now planning for what comes next: return of the remains and sacred objects to their tribes.

On March 11, sixteen representatives of the Iroquois Confederacy were on campus for a consultation in preparation for that return. Representatives included member of the Haudenosaunee Committee, a standing committee that oversees burials and regulations, and their clan mothers. The consultation began with assurances from Frances E. Carr, Binghamton University’s vice president for research, that BU is committed to an open dialog and ongoing cooperation.

“This is an important step in our long-standing relationship with the Iroquois,” Carr said. “We are committed to our responsibility to return the remains and items and look forward to strengthening our special friendship.”

It has taken years to get to this point, said Versaggi. “In the past, a lot of museums spent time and effort to collect grave goods and human remains for research and display purposes,” she said. “Gradually, the voice of Native Americans started to emerge [saying] that these items should be returned. The National Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 was passed to right some of these historical wrongs.”

The federal government then initiated a series of steps and deadlines for documenting items, with any institution that receives federal funding or holding a federal charter of any type required to meet them. “There are four steps outlined in the law, with the first being completion of a general summary of what we have,” said Versaggi. “This would include human remains, sacred objects, funerary objects buried with the dead and objects of cultural patrimony – things that could be sacred, but belonging to an entire tribe rather than an individual.”

Binghamton University met the first deadline, then moved on to the next step – a detailed, item-by-item inventory. “This was a huge endeavor,” said Versaggi. “We had to look in every box for anything that met the four categories.” PAF received a National Park Service grant to help complete the inventory, which consists mainly of small items, including human remains and shell beads from six or seven sites, and a large collection that included the remains of about 140 individuals salvaged from the Englebert Site in Nichols. The Englebert Site is a large graveyard uncovered in the early days of archaeology in the Southern Tier, during construction of Route 17.

“It was a salvage operation more than anything,” said Versaggi. “People were desperately trying to salvage these graves and bring them back here before they were lost. Some of the remains were housed at the Tioga Historical Society, and we also sent human remains to the state museum. We actually conducted a joint inventory with the New York State Museum, and representatives from there will be here for the consultation as well.”

With the inventory complete, step three in the process was the consultation with delegates from those tribes that are likely to have claims for the items held by the University.

Versaggi likened the Haudenosaunee visit to campus to that of a delegation visiting the United Nations. “This was an important meeting. These are sovereign nations within our borders,” she said. “The delegates of these nations are at the level of ambassadors. The clan mothers select chiefs and monitor their activities. They even have the right to remove them from their position as chiefs.”

Versaggi said the March 11 consultation allowed the group to come together to determine whose ancestors might have occupied the 11 sites from which remains and other items were recovered.

“As many of these affiliations were based on estimates, the challenge is to determine which groups have the best claims,” she said. “They approved of the fact that we had assigned a preliminary affiliation, opening the door to further investigation and discussion.”

Versaggi said the Iroquois representatives indicated they will meet further to discuss the consultation before preparing letters of claim for the remains. The return of sacred objects, some of which include false-face, wooden masks produced and sold by Iroquois in Canada as late as the 1960s, may take place even sooner. The repatriation of the reproduction masks is sought by the committee because the images on the masks are themselves considered sacred, Versaggi said.

Once final claims are made in writing to Versaggi, she must corroborate that the claims are legitimate, have the claims published in the Federal Register and then wait for the comment period to end. Repatriation of the remains will follow.

When the formal repatriation occurs, representatives from the tribes – perhaps accompanied by their clan mothers and faith keepers – will accept the remains and other items. It’s most likely they will return the remains and goods to areas as close as possible to where they were originally found.

“There has to be mutual respect and respect for each other’s cultural traditions,” said Versaggi. “One of the traditional chiefs, who recently died, always said to me, ‘We can’t interrupt the journey of these people without massive disruption to the tribe.’ It’s a matter of honor.”

Rick Hill, chairperson of the Haudenosaunee Standing Committee, commended the University for its roles in the repatriation process. “The consultation was a great step forward for both the Haudenosaunee and the University,” he said. “We were impressed by the quality of the information that was shared and the spirit in which that information was shared. There was a mutual respect among all parties and this will go a long way as we negotiate on the more difficult aspects of the repatriation.”

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