by John D. Hubbard|
Drawer upon pine drawer contain bits of history, pieces of a heritage, links to yesterday. Among the most prominent of the John Longyear Museum holdings is Colgate's Iroquois collection.
For years the collection was used as a teaching aid, a hands-on opportunity to reach into the past, to hold tangible evidence of the people who lived in this valley long before 1819.
Today, the collection is being scrutinized more closely than ever. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act mandated all federally-funded institutions to inventory material pertaining to Native American tribes. The law also called for institutions to contact descendants to determine if they wanted any artifacts collected from burial sites.
"Most of the identifiable material we have," says Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Social Sciences Division Gary Urton, "pertains to the Oneida Nation."
In 1995 the Nation asked Colgate about its collections. Dixie Henry '96, an archaeology student, who was working on an inventory, identified the human remains -- a skull and one box of disarticulated pieces, along with items she felt were from burial sites, some pots, scissors, a paint pouch and dog teeth. All were returned for reburial.
"It helps to think these are my people, my ancestors, housed in these institutions," says Brian Patterson, the Bear Clan representative to the Oneida Nation's Men's Council. It was Patterson who came to Colgate for the repatriation and then oversaw the reburial ceremonies. "To do the right thing, repatriations, can be strenuous and painstaking." He felt a flood of emotions, from remorse to rejoicing, as he gathered the boxes. "It was quite straining, and quite rejuvenating at the same time."
Dixie Henry and Gary Urton.
The Oneida feasted their ancestors, burned tobacco to carry their thoughts and
prayers, spoke words to the Creator then laid their people back to rest, "never
to be disturbed again. That's quite a feeling," says Patterson.
"The Nation is thankful for the approach the university has taken to correct a great wrong. Colgate has been very cooperative in work-ing to resolve this sensitive issue."
The cooperation has broadened into collaboration. There is the possibility of exhibits at the Nation's cultural center and in the Longyear Museum and Associate Professor of Anthropology Jordan Kerber has been leading Oneida students on archaeology digs. Says Patterson, "It gives our young people a connection with their past and a greater understanding of who they are. It is one thing to say `I am Native American' and another to say `I am Oneida and I know who I am.' That's one thing the Nation and Colgate can provide."
The relationship between Colgate and the Oneida Nation has been further bolstered by Terry '65 and Kaye Skinner's major charitable trust given to the university "to support Native American programs."
Aware of a lack of communication, Henry wanted to remedy the situation. "The process of repatriation opened up so many doors and opportunities for collaboration between the Oneida Nation and Colgate."
Jumping right in, Henry began to not only inventory Colgate's collection but also to create a computerized database to replace the original card catalogue that made using the materials haphazard at best. Colgate also moved to provide the nation with, as Urton puts it, "complete and open access.
"It's not just maintaining the Oneidas' cultural identity, but it's helping Colgate students become aware of the native people who have lived here always and live here still."
Herb Bigford and Bud Bennett spent most of their lives searching the Chenango Valley, independent of one another, but in a systematic and scientific manner. Such wasn't always the case, according to Oneida Nation historian Tony Wonderley, who says, "Twenty-five to 30 sites of known area villages were continuously dug and looted for 150 years. The Colgate collection is the only group of material to come out of private hands that was dug locally, pulled together and preserved."
Both Bigford and Bennett were serious amateur archaeologists and the
collections they built contain what Tom Palmer '97, who has taken over the
project from Dixie, calls "truly spectacular" pieces. |
In among the more common projectile points and stone awls, these finds inspire Palmer. "That's what's so intriguing about going through this collection," he says, holding up a pipe. "You don't see these," he says. "It is ornately decorated." Palmer is equally excited by bits of mica, jasper from Pennsylvania, Great Lakes copper and a small piece of bluish stone he has yet to identify. "You know these travelled great distances."
Originally interested in archaeology, Palmer notes similarities in his inventory work. "There's definitely the same discovery process. This is just a lot less dirty."
Palmer is continuing the creation of a computerized database, work he will eventually pass on to Dana Lewis '98. "Before, it was hard to find things because there was no communication between the card catalogue and the cabinets."
Those cabinets, with their pine drawers, speak of romance and imagination but also good solid research. "The collection is obviously important to the Oneidas from a personal perspective as well as a cultural and historic perspective," says Palmer. "And it is important to Colgate in regard to the knowledge it can bring to students. There's a wealth of information within this collection."