Dying to know

The federal government has ruled that the remains of 180 Native Americans dug up in the Southern Tier during the construction of Route 17 should be returned to the custody of the Onondaga Nation by the New York State Museum. Naturally, New York is protesting, along the lines that nobody can agree when the Onondagas arrived in the area.

But what, exactly, does New York State need with 180 dead bodies in a cupboard? I mean, the Onondagas have their reasons, but I’d love to know what New York’s is. 180 skeletons? Really? How does this make the citizens of New York richer? How much, in these tough economic times, are we allocating in the state budget to help keep these skeletons out of the earth? I’m dying to know. Perhaps Gov. Paterson, who fought so passionately to preserve the African Burial Ground in Manhattan years ago, can tell us the dollar amount.

4 thoughts on “Dying to know

  1. sean

    your comments made me remember this column, written many years ago, in which Vincent Johnson spoke to what those remains mean to the Onondagas – and why they shouldn’t be on some shelf in some backroom.

    The Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY)

    July 7, 1996 Sundayn


    BY: Sean Kirst, columnist

    The Onondaga clan mothers felt they had no choice. Leon Shenandoah, the tadadaho – or high chief – of the Iroquois Confederacy, was gravely ill. Eight months ago, for his own good, the clan mothers released him from the position he held for almost 30 years.

    His seat by the council fire remained empty. The decision on when to return would be his. It was an attempt at helping Shenandoah to recover, an attempt at easing the burden of looking out for all Six Nations.

    “We believed it would help,” said Evelyn Elm, a Beaver clan mother. “He is a strong man.”

    Throughout the winter, as Shenandoah was in and out of the hospital, many Onondagas feared they would lose him. The tadadaho himself had none of those doubts. “I figured I’d be back,” he said. After all, he wanted to welcome home the wampum.

    “He’s like the belts,” said Chief Oren Lyons. “We need to have him.”

    On Saturday, the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City returned 74 pieces of the fragile belts and beadwork. It was only the second time such precious artifacts, held by museums, have made it home to the Iroquois.

    Shenandoah, 81, is very thin. He walks with the help of a cane. But he was there, resting in a folding chair, and his presence brought joy to hundreds of his people.

    “It took a lot for him to come,” said Ruchatneet Printup, a Tuscarora. “It helped to strengthen him, and it helped to strengthen us.”

    Shenandoah wore ceremonial clothes and a headdress of eagle feathers. Chief Irving Powless approached him, dropped a delicate red collar around Shenandoah’s neck. It was made in 1908. It is worn by Onondaga’s keepers of the wampum, belts and strings used for covenant or prayer.

    For centuries, as farmland and cities encroached on old Iroquois villages or burial grounds, wampum became booty for archaeological collectors. Some of it, finally, is starting to come back.

    The wampum Saturday was covered and placed in a van in New York City. With an Iroquois escort, it was carried to the Onondaga Nation. “It is a special feeling,” said Marylou Printup, a Tuscarora clan mother. “It is joyous, like a child coming home.”

    Politically, the effort to regain wampum from museums began in 1966. Powless recalled how he drove to the first of those meetings with his father, one of his teachers and George Thomas, who was then tadadaho. All three of his companions died during the long quest to reclaim the wampum. The Iroquois endured three decades of negotiations, legal roadblocks and cultural condescension.

    “What was needed though the whole thing,” said Mohawk Chief Jake Swamp, “was to count on everyone having a good mind.”

    He spoke of calm thinking, which is really the point of what Shenandoah does. As tadadaho, he is stripped of his clan and his personal ties. It is his job to keep a clear spiritual view, even in times of dissension or anger.

    “I would always speak to him when we were having our own problems,” said Tuscarora Chief Leo Henry, recalling days of violence at his western New York nation in the mid-1980s. “Leon would remind me that these things were prophesied, that they had to happen and that they would pass.”

    Shenandoah sees a promise kept in the wampum coming home. Almost 10 years ago, Onondaga Chief Vincent Johnson quietly traveled to Kentucky with the tadadaho. A farmer had discovered a massive burial ground and, for a fee, fortune hunters took turns digging it up. Johnson said more than 1,000 graves, many of them Iroquois, were opened or disturbed.

    For weeks, the two men labored to rebury their dead. They burned tobacco and tried to put the souls at peace. It was a difficult and depressing job. When it was over, Shenandoah crouched in the field and burned tobacco one more time. Johnson said the spirits of their ancestors returned to pay their debt. They asked what they could do in return for finding rest.

    “What we would like,” Shenandoah told them, “is our wampum back.”

    Johnson is convinced that moment was the turning point. Shenandoah, he said, has the gift of keeping one eye in the present and one eye in the past. The tadadaho was there Saturday to greet the wampum at the longhouse, which he described as only a first step in the return of artifacts.

    He also admitted his illness has taken its toll. “My stomach, my kidneys, they needed doctoring,” Shenandoah said. He seemed thin, and tired, although he managed to crack a few jokes.

    “It was good just to hear his voice,” said clan mother Betty Jacobs, who began to weep in the longhouse when the wampum was unveiled.

    As a 3-year-old, Shenandoah was burned almost to death. “They did medicine over me,” Shenandoah said, referring to ancient Iroquois healing rites. When it was over, when the child surprised them all and survived, an elder stood and predicted, “This boy someday will hold a high position.”

    He became tadadaho.

    On Saturday, amid much joy, he reclaimed that job. His “horns,” or his position, were restored in full. Then he sat on a folding chair in a soft breeze, while the chiefs around him spoke about the wampum.

    A great gift, they all agreed, always comes back for a reason.

  2. Ellen

    That is interesting. I didn’t know a tadodaho could be “released from duty” – yet it makes sense I suppose.

  3. sean

    it’s kind of beautiful, really, in that whole extraordinary mesh of the political, the social and the spiritual … to take that great burden off his shoulders while he recovers. it’s one of those things that always reminds me of why the onondaga language is synonymous with its people: i’m sure there’s a word for that in their language, when there is no exact word for it in ours.


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