ONEIDA COUNTY, N.Y. (WYSR) — Cornell University is trying to make right the wrongs of its past by returning ancestral remains and possessions back to the Oneida Indian Nation.

The University apologized at a small campus ceremony on Tuesday, February 21, for any harm they’ve caused by keeping these remains and possessions in their university archive for six decades.

The remains that were stored in Cornell’s archives for decades were unearthed in 1964 when property owners dug a ditch for a new water line on their farm near Windsor, New York.

After finding the remains, the property owners contacted law enforcement authorities who brought the remains to Cornell anthropology professor, Kenneth A.R. Kennedy, in 1964, who carried out forensic identification for age and sex.

This happened a quarter of a century before the passage of the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 which provides a formal process for institutions to repatriate cultural items or ancestral remains to either lineal descendants or tribes.

After professor Kennedy identified the remains, they were put in a campus archive. It wasn’t until after the professor’s death that they were rediscovered by younger colleagues during an archival inventory later on.

“Today we’re marking an event that is both long overdue and never should have become necessary. 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,” said President Martha E. Pollack, speaking at the Sage Chapel ceremony, where faculty, students, staff and Oneida Indian Nation guests gathered. “We are here to try – as far as we are able – to right those wrongs. In doing so, we take responsibility for them and we grieve the harm they have caused.”

Dean Lyons, an Oneida Indian Nation Turtle Clan member, delivered traditional Oneida ceremonial words at the event. Lyons was introduced by Joel M. Malina, vice president for university relations, who opened the ceremony with the acknowledgment that Cornell is located on the traditional lands of the Gayogo̱hó:nǫɁ people.

“Nearly sixty years ago, these ancestors were taken from the place their families chose for them. Without regard for the wishes of their descendants, they were taken to Cornell and remained here for decades – unidentified, alone, and far from the places and people among whom they belonged,” said Pollack. “Today, I want to apologize, on behalf of the university and all who were involved in these wrongs, for the disrespect shown to these ancestors, and for the hurt that has added more pain to the tragedy of Indigenous dispossession.”

Ray Halbritter, an Oneida Indian Nation representative, said that the remains of the individuals will be laid to rest in the tradition of their people.

“We are finally able to speak to them in Onyota’a:ká:, the Oneida language – the language they would have spoken during their lifetimes. The return of our ancestors to our sacred homelands is a basic human right. We commend Cornell University for working with the Oneida Indian Nation to right this wrong. The repatriation of our ancestors’ remains enables us to honor their lives and honor the ways that our people have lived by since time immemorial. Each time the remains of our ancestors and our cultural artifacts are returned to us in this way, we take another step forward in a long journey toward recognition of our sovereignty as a nation and our dignity as people.”

Oneida Indian Nation representative, Ray Halbritter

Matthew Velasco, assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, in the College of Arts and Sciences, spoke at the ceremony and explained as an educator and researcher he is an inheritor of this legacy.

“To say that Professor Kennedy’s actions were utterly commonplace among his contemporaries is not to excuse them. On the contrary, they reveal the mundanity and pervasiveness of Indigenous dispossession,” said Velasco. “Our efforts to help bring the ancestors home cannot erase the harm done. But I hope this serves as a sign of our remorse, our respect for the Oneida Indian Nation and our resolve to do better.”

At the ceremony’s end, Pollack and Halbritter each signed the transfer document and it was agreed the funerary objects that were interred with the ancestors will be restored to the Oneida people.