With tearful apology, Colgate University returns over 1,500 artifacts to Oneida Indian Nation

Ceramic pots, turtle shells, used Cree rattles and bone, metal and amber figurines.

The objects played some of the most sacred roles in the funeral rites of the Oneida Indian Nation, but spent decades in storage in a basement at Colgate University.

More than 1,500 grave goods and cultural artifacts were returned to the Oneida Indian Nation this week in a repatriation ceremony at the Madison County Liberal Arts College – the largest such transfer in the history of the New York State.

Repatriation is defined as the return of a person to their country of origin. For the Oneida, it is not just the return of cultural artifacts, but the return of ancestors and a community reclaiming what has always been theirs.

“As we come together for this ceremony, we are not just recovering the objects of our ancestors; we are regaining nothing less than the history of our people and our history in this region,” said Ray Halbritter, Oneida Indian Nation Representative and Managing Director of Oneida Nation Enterprises.

This latest ceremony is the fifth repatriation between Colgate and the Oneida Nation through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, which provides funds to assist in the transfer of cultural objects from museums to Indigenous peoples to whom these objects belong.

In 1995, the remains of seven Oneida ancestors were returned for ceremonial burial, along with other grave goods, Halbritter said. Another return of the remains of two ancestors and two artifacts occurred in 2002. A sacred mask was returned in 2019, and an extensive inventory of museum collections resulted in the repatriation of the remains of at least six additional Oneida ancestors in 2020.

“For decades, too many museums and other educational and cultural institutions have followed indefensible practices regarding ancestral remains and cultural artifacts of Native Americans,” Halbritter said.

“These practices have been allowed to continue under the belief that the preservation of history is of the utmost importance without questioning the means to do so,” he continued. “They assume it’s possible while separating history from the people it belongs to, assuming we tell our stories with stolen artifacts and unknown voices. Indigenous grave goods and ceremonial objects should never be the property of museums in this way.

Colgate University President Brian Casey thanked members of the Oneida Indian Nation, Colgate faculty and the Longyear Museum of Anthropology for all the hours of work and investigation it took to complete the process of this last repatriation.

Colgate University President Brian Casey thanked members of the Oneida Indian Nation, Colgate faculty and the Longyear Museum of Anthropology for all the hours of work and investigation it took to complete the process of this last repatriation.

According to Casey, the items returned at this ceremony came from a collection acquired by the university in 1959.

“One that should never have been acquired,” Casey said, in tears. “When you think of your families, you think of their stories, you think of their objects. To think that they were separated is wrong, and I apologize for that.

While the return of these sacred possessions and grave goods continues to symbolize peace between Colgate University and the Oneida Indian Nation, it was not without pain and heartbreak.

Colgate University repatriates over 1,500 items to Oneida Indian Nation

Lisa Latocha, a member of the Oneida Nation, Wolf Clan, is a Community Liaison at the Longyear Museum of Anthropology at Colgate University, who became one of the museum staff who helped lead the repatriation of these assets.

Lisa Latocha, a member of the Oneida Nation, Wolf Clan, is a Community Liaison Officer at Colgate University’s Longyear Museum of Anthropology.

For five years, she has been waiting. Waiting for an acknowledgment of receipt. Waiting for the ceremony. Waiting for his ancestors to return home.

“Five years I’ve waited for you,” Latocha said.

When she started her job at Colgate in 2018, it didn’t take her long to spot a sacred object that once belonged to the Oneida.

Reading historical documents about cultural genocide and the historical trauma suffered by the Oneida took him through waves of emotions. After reading certain events, she had to stop, cry – sometimes for days. She said she withdrew from that dark place because she had work to finish.

Five years later, Latocha stood in a purple, black and white costume, honoring his ancestors. Around her in the room are other Oneida wearing insignia consisting of colorful ribbon skirts, ribbon shirts, and dangling pearl earrings. Everyone in the room came to witness the return of their ancestors to their homeland.

Colgate University repatriates over 1,500 items to Oneida Indian Nation

Dean Lyons recognizes the 1,500 grave goods behind him. “I said to our ancestors welcome to our homelands and for the return of these grave goods,” said Lyons, Oneida Nation, Turtle Clan.

Turning to three tables full of wooden crates, Dean Lyons began speaking softly to them in Oneida.

“I said to our ancestors welcome to our homelands and for the return of these grave goods,” said Lyons, Oneida Nation, Turtle Clan.

With plans to continue future repatriation efforts, conversations between Colgate and the Oneida Nation will continue, with the goal of learning from past mistakes.

“To achieve this goal, we need to create a multicultural dialogue like the one we gathered here for,” Halbritter said. “This ensures that all of our region’s stories will be preserved for generations to come in our own voices – the voices in which they are meant to be heard.”

Colgate University repatriates over 1,500 items to Oneida Indian Nation

To end the ceremony, Halbritter and Casey signed documents to mark peace between the University and the Nation, as well as to officially mark the return of sacred property.

To end the ceremony, Halbritter and Casey signed documents to mark peace between the University and the Nation, as well as to officially mark the return of sacred property.

“Our homelands are the resting place of our ancestors and must remain undestructed until the end of time,” Halbritter said.

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