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Closure of Jamesville Correctional threatens sanctity of Onondaga burial site

Onondaga Nation General Counsel Joe Heath looks at a survey that might show the approximate location of the burial site. Since the burials are unmarked, their exact location isn't entirely clear.
Scott Willis
Onondaga Nation General Counsel Joe Heath looks at a survey showing the approximate location of the burial site. Onondaga County set aside one acre for the 81 sets of remains that were reburied in 1999.

The possible closure of Jamesville Correctional Facility and merger with the Justice Center in downtown Syrac use has generated debate about staffing levels and inmate populations. But there is also concern that future plans for the site might disturb the burial ground for dozens of Onondaga Nation ancestors for a second time in 60 years. 

The location not too far from the Jamesville facility was supposed to be the final resting place for an Onondaga settlement more than 300 years ago.

Joe Heath, longtime general counsel for the Onondaga Nation, said more than half a dozen former villages are known to be within a mile of the area.

"So there were burials all over, and what happened before any laws began to protect them is that archaeologists dug those burials up. I've unfortunately been involved in over a dozen difficult burial site disturbances and the emotions involved are just profound. They're just really stark," Heath said.

He said the Haudenosaunee often buried artifacts with their ancestors, which was critical to their afterlife experience.

"A lacrosse stick, sometimes a paintbrush—and all of that was designed because they are on a journey back to the Creator. That's how they talk about it—and when they're disturbed, that journey is broken," Heath said.

The late Syracuse Post Standard columnist Dick Case told the story of how the remains were removed in 1961, and then reported on their reburial in 1999.

Heath said the article noted poor treatment of the relocated remains and items.

“There's some quotes from the article about how disrespectfully they were handled, and so the return of those ancestors and their 81 sets of human remains that were reburied here on 1 acre, that was supposed to have been transferred to the nation by the county," Heath said.

Heath tracked down the local law approved by the county in 1996, which set the reburial process in motion, and found a deed conveying the property, which presumably offers some protections. But the document wasn’t signed, so he isn’t sure it was formally adopted.

“We’ve checked electronically. I don’t believe the deed was recorded. The deed should be recorded. The Legislature approved that," Heath said.

Heath said he included the documents, plus a survey showing the burial site in a letter he sent this week to the county executive and county attorney to remind them of the laws passed by their predecessors.

Laws aside, Sister Maura Rhode warned lawmakers before their vote last month about the ethical implications. She’s provided religious services at Jamesville for 34 years.

“How would you feel if it was someone in your family in a cemetery that had to be dug up or worked over because houses would be built?" Rhode said. "There is sacred ground up there.”

City Lights is located on the eastern side of Jamesville along Taylor Road.
Scott Willis
City Lights is located on the eastern side of Jamesville Correctional along Taylor Road.

Taylor Road runs along the eastern boundary of Jamesville Correctional Center. On the other side of the road is a neighborhood called City Lights, with several upscale, good-sized houses. There’s concern that if Jamesville were to close, the property would be sold by the county and the burial ground would be disturbed yet again.

Heath shares Rhode's concern.

“Let's assume they sell this to a private developer, and they want to build more large suburban homes like City Lights up there. If there's no federal money involved, there's very little protection for whatever is found here," Heath said.

He said there’s no state law protecting these burial sites, which are scattered across the area.

“New York is one of only four states that has no law that protects unmarked burials," Heath said. "There is a federal law, theNative American Graves, Repatriation and Protection Act.But that only applies if there's federal money involved in a construction project or any kind of project.”

Heath said he’s been pushing the state to pass a law for more than 25 years. But as recently as December, Gov. Kathy Hochul vetoed a bill that would extend protections to unmarked burial sites. A new billwas introduced in late January. Regardless, Heath said he’s determined not to let it happen again at Jamesville.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at