The Onondaga Nation has presented the Cayuga Museum of History and Art with a replica of a Haudenosaunee Confederacy wampum belt in appreciation for the return of 21 objects of spiritual significance to the confederacy’s Six Nations.
The Cayuga Museum in Auburn, New York voluntarily returned 19 false face masks and two wampum articles that are associated with burials to the Onondaga Nation last summer. As a gesture of goodwill, Onondaga Faithkeeper and artist Tony Gonyea made a replica of one of the repatriated objects—a wampum belt—for use in the museum. On December 19, Haudenosaunee Confederacy Tadodaho Sidney Hill; Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper for the Onondaga Nation Turtle Clan; Gonyea, Faithkeeper for the Beaver Clan and other Haudenosaunee leaders met with museum officials at the museum’s Theater Mack to present the replica wampum belt.
“This is such a great event to be a part of,” Tadodaho Hill said, according to the Onondaga Nation website. “We have been working for so long to have our sacred objects returned to us. It good to see the museum understands the importance of repatriation to the Onondaga Nation. We hope this is a sign of more objects being returned from private entities.”
The Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) Confederacy includes the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora nations. Onondaga is located in the center of the confederacy’s vast aboriginal territory and acts as the repository for repatriated Haudenosaunee objects.
The repatriation of the objects is particularly significant because the Cayuga Museum was not required under law to give them back to the Haudenosaunee. The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) requires federally funded institutions such as museums and universities to return Native American “cultural items” to the lineal descendants or culturally-affiliated groups of the people who created them. Such items include human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and items of cultural patrimony.
The Cayuga Museum receives no federal funding, and therefore is exempt from the NAGPRA mandate. Even though the museum’s mission is to collect and exhibit items connected to the history and culture of the region, its governing board of trustees chose to return the items on its own accord. Repatriation seems to be a museum policy since it has returned culturally significant indigenous objects to the custody of American Indian nations throughout the country in the past.
As for the items returned to Onondaga last summer, Lauren Chyle, curator of the Cayuga Museum, says in a video of the December 19 event, “We discovered that we had some masks and some wampum bands that the museum could not ethically display.” Many of the items do not have “really great provenance and records that go with them, so we determined that returning them to the Haudenosaunee would be the best thing,” Chyle said. The museum is planning a permanent exhibit on the Haudenosaunee people who have lived in the area since before settlement by whites of European descent. The museum collection includes thousands of artifacts, from stone tools to weapons to lacrosse sticks that can be displayed to tell the story of Haudenosaunee history in the Finger Lakes region.
According to the Haudenosaunee Grand Council of Chiefs, no one outside of the medicine societies should ever possess or even see the sacred wooden masks, known as false face masks, or the corn husk masks, “which represent the shared power of the original medicine beings.” Reproductions of the masks are also prohibited, according to the website because “[t]o subject the image of the medicine masks to ridicule or misrepresentation is a violation of the sacred functions of the masks.”
There is no justifiable reason for anyone other than medicine society members to possess the masks, the chiefs say. “There is no legal, moral, or ethical way in which a medicine mask can be obtained or possessed by a non-Indian individual or institution, as in order for a medicine mask to be removed from the society it would require the sanction of the Grand Council of Chiefs. This sanction has never been given. We ask all people to cooperate in the restoration of masks and other sacred objects to the proper caretakers among the Haudenosaunee. It is only through these actions that the traditional culture will remain strong and peace will be restored to our communities.”
Despite the prohibition, there is a thriving trade in Haudenosaunee sacred objects. A few years ago Sotheby’s withdrew two wampum belts after the Haudenosaunee Standing Committee and cultural resources representatives of the Abenaki and Penobscot Indians requested their return. Numerous other websites can also be found that advertise and display false face masks for sale.
Watch a video of the presentation here: