On Wednesday, Colgate University returned 1,520 stolen Native American funerary objects that were excavated by an amateur archeologist from burial sites within the Oneida Territory in upstate New York between 1924 and 1957.

According to a federal document, Colgate University’s The Longyear Museum of Anthropology purchased the objects in 1959 from amateur collector and graverobber Herbert Bigford, who excavated burial mounds across the state. Included among the artifacts are ceramics, pipes, animal parts, tools and beads.

The return marks the university’s fifth repatriation to Oneida Nation since 1995 when federal law required institutions and museums to catalog and begin returning Native American human remains and associated funerary objects. It took 27 years for the university to return every Oneida ancestor and burial object it held.

Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter called the decades-long practices of museums dealing with ancestral remains and cultural artifacts “indefensible” during the transfer ceremony held at Colgate University on Nov. 9. 

“These practices have been allowed to continue under the belief that preserving history is of the ultimate importance, without questioning the means of doing so,” Halbritter said. “They assume that it is possible while divorcing the history from the people to whom it belongs, presuming to tell our stories with stolen artifacts in unfamiliar places.”

Colgate President Brian Casey became emotional during the video-recorded ceremony. He said the collection should never have been acquired. 

“For this, on behalf of this university, I humbly apologize,” Casey said. “You think of your own families, you think of their stories, you think of their objects. And to think that they were separated—Again, I apologize.”

Colgate is still in possession of at least two ancestors, according to its self-reported data to the federal database in the early 90s.

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