Respect. Connect. Reflect. Direct: Guided Conversation: Burial Law in NYS Affecting Indigenous Peoples

By Susan Brearley

Editor’s Note: Death affects everyone, as well as burial laws. How important is it to you and your community that cemeteries and the artifacts of life and death be respected?

A conversation involves talking AND listening. Often we do too much of one and not enough of the other. Guided conversations are a chance to find time to speak in a safe space to look deeper into events, where a facilitator comes up with a starting set of questions around a single topic. This conversation guides us in exploring the uncomfortable topic of death and how it may affect any actions we might take as we learn more about this subject.

In this guided conversation, we have adopted a simple yet structured approach, inspired by and based on methodologies informed by a variety of organizations and references, including “Living Room Conversations.org,” “InnerMBA,” “White Awake.org,” “Coming to the Table.org,” the book “Decolonizing Methodologies” by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, “The Art of Effective Facilitation” edited by Lisa Landreman, and work at the Kettering Foundation. The framework for this conversation guide is adopted with grateful acknowledgment to Living Room Conversations guide work.

In our conversation, 4 to 6 people meet in person or on a video call for about 90 minutes to listen to and be heard by others on this chosen topic. Rather than debating or convincing, we take turns talking to share, learn and be curious. There is no preparation required. Anyone can participate. Large groups can easily be split into small working participatory groups for Rounds 1 and 2 to reconvene for Round 3.

The conversation:

1. Introductions: Why Are We Here (approximately 10 minutes)

Each participant has 1 minute to introduce themselves.

Share your name, where you live, what drew you here, and if this is your first deliberative conversation. You may offer an indigenous land designation if you know of it. You can look for it at https://native-land.ca/.

2. Conversation Agreements: How We Will Engage (About 5 minutes)

These will set the tone of our conversation. Participants volunteer to take turns reading them aloud.

  • Be curious and listen to understand. The conversation is as much about listening as it is about talking. You might enjoy exploring how others’ experiences have shaped their values and perspectives.
  • Show respect and suspend judgment. People tend to judge one another. Setting judgments aside opens you to learning from others and makes them feel respected and appreciated. Try to listen without interruption or crosstalk truly.
  • Note any common ground as well as any differences. Look for areas of agreement or shared values that may arise and take an interest in the differing beliefs and opinions.
  • Be authentic and welcome that from others. Share what is important to you. Speak from your experience. Be considerate of others who are doing the same.
  • Be purposeful and to the point. Do your best to keep your comments concise and relevant to the question you are answering. Be conscious of sharing airtime with other participants.
  • Own and guide the conversation. Take responsibility for the quality of your participation and the conversation as a whole. Be proactive in getting yourself and others back on track if needed. Use an agreed-upon signal like the ‘time out’ sign if you feel the agreements are not honored.

3. Question Rounds: What We Will Talk About (About 65 minutes)

Optional: host or any participant can keep track of time and gently let people know when their time has elapsed.

A. Round One: Getting to Know Each Other (About 10 minutes)

Each participant takes just 1–2 minutes to answer the question of their choice in this list — choose just one:

  • What are your hopes and concerns for your family, community, and/or country?
  • What would your best friend say about who you are?
  • What sense of purpose, mission, or duty, guides you in your life?

B. Round Two: Exploring the Topic — Burial Law in New York State (About 40 minutes)

One participant can volunteer to read this paragraph:

Death affects everyone. Burial Laws affect everyone. They affect cemeteries, agencies, and community structures. They describe how we handle dead bodies, no matter the circumstances of the deceased’s death or for how long they have been dead. And yet, for indigenous peoples living in New York, along with other states, there are gaping holes in our legal system regarding protecting burial sites. From the NYS Senate Bill SR5701, which, in its current version, has a history of waiting to pass since 2009:

“New York is one of the (…) states in the nation without statutory protection for Native American burial sites or unmarked burial sites in general. There have been several known incidents of negligent or deliberate failure to protect sites, which were disturbed by development activity, as well as looting. This legislation is necessary to prevent additional destruction of these sites, which are of great historical and cultural significance to all the people of the state.”

Take about 2 minutes each to choose and answer one of the questions below, or make thoughtful commentary as it comes up for you based on what others have said, without interruption or crosstalk. Raise your hand as you feel moved to speak so the facilitator can guide the conversation.

  • How does your family prepare for death? What is the tradition for burial in your family? What are your plans for when you die?
  • Green burial laws, meaning biodegradable, no chemicals or formaldehyde, and green cemeteries are now available in Washington State and Colorado. In New York State, there are no laws requiring embalming, a casket, or burial in a cemetery, and burial is allowed on private property. How does this information affect your opinion about burial practices?
  • There is a company called Recompose (https://recompose.life/ ) which advocates for natural organic reduction, or human composting. This burial practice is now legal in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, with bills in the assemblies of California and New York. How do you view green burial or natural organic reduction to be different, or the same, as the practice of ancient indigenous burial mounds?
  • Many Seneca Nation family burial plots in Western New York were disturbed during the Kinzua Dam project of 1965, with proper named identification made impossible during the sudden displacement. If your family or progeny were to adopt, or has adopted, green burial practices on your own family property, what would you want any future property owners to know about how to treat these family remains?
  • In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was enacted. Its protections were for Federal lands and institutions, leaving it up to the states to enact their own synchronous laws. What would you say is a reasonable period for states to take action once a Federal Act is approved?
  • According to Dr. Elizabeth Mead, an urban archaeologist working in New York City, in her paper, “Prepare for Death and Follow Me: The Archaeology of New York City’s Cemeteries,” lost cemetery sites have been frequently found. How important is it to you and your community that cemeteries and the artifacts of life and death be respected?
  • How does being uncomfortable with the topic of death affect any actions you might take as you learn more about this topic?

C. Round Three: Reflecting on the Conversation (About 15 minutes)

Take about 2 minutes to answer one of the following questions:

  • What was the most meaningful or valuable to you in this conversation?
  • What new understandings or common ground were found on the topic?
  • How has this conversation changed your perception of anyone in this group, including yourself?
  • Is there a next step you would like to take based upon the conversation you just had?

4. Closing (About 5 minutes)

  • Please give us feedback! Write testimonials for this deliberative conversational process wherever you share with others.
  • Get involved! Explore resources as mentioned in this guide. Read, follow and support New York State Senate bills SR5701 and A382. Be sure to start an active NYS Senate account if you do not already have one, so you can support future legislation and communicate directly with your State Senator.
  • Seek to join more deliberative conversations!

THANK YOU!

For additional reading and research, visit these websites:

https://www.alleghenyfront.org/the-complicated-history-of-the-kinzua-dam-and-how-it-changed-life-for-the-seneca-people/

https://www.nps.gov/archeology/tools/laws/nagpra.htm

https://recompose.life/

https://uumarin.org/services/the-school-of-the-dead/

https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/burial-cremation-laws-new-york.html

https://coeio.com/burial-laws-state/

https://academicworks.cuny.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4778&context=gc_etds

https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2021/s5701?intent=support

https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2021/a382

https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/declaration-on-the-rights-of-indigenous-peoples.html

https://www.regents.nysed.gov/common/regents/files/113ced1%5B1%5D.pdf

https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nagpra/index.htm

1 Other state identifiers can be substituted for states with gaps between NAGPRA and State legislation.

2 From the book Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta.

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