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Nora Mable

When she was little, Dyan Youpee spent her afternoons in her dad’s office — sometimes doodling under his desk.

Dyan’s father, Darrell “Curley” Youpee, founded the Fort Peck Cultural Resource Department in 1995 and served as director for 22 years.

As a young girl, Dyan remembers listening to her father’s conversations. She didn’t realize it at the time, but she was absorbing valuable information.

“It was a revolutionary time,” she said. “I watched my dad fighting to have a spot at the table with federal agencies. So that language has always been part of my lexicon. It’s always been instilled in me that I was rich in culture.”

Dyan Youpee now directs the Fort Peck Cultural Resource Department, and it’s these experiences that led her — along with members of her staff and the Fort Peck Tribal Executive Board — to drive nearly 500 miles from the Fort Peck Reservation to Missoula this summer to repatriate cultural items from the University of Montana.

Questions of compliance

Public schools, museums and other institutions nationwide house items affiliated with tribes. Sometimes the items are donated. Other times, a school or museum staff member may have bought or collected the items for archaeology or research purposes.

Dave Kuntz, director of strategic communications at UM, said these items are state-owned. The university has legal requirements from the state to protect the objects and serve as a repository for them. Kuntz said that while in the past, the items would be displayed in classrooms or used for research, they aren’t anymore. Now, he said, the university stores the items in a secure place, where qualified staff care for them.

Youpee said the university is not in compliance with the Native American Graves Protection Act (NAGPRA), a federal law stating that human remains and other items of cultural significance belong to lineal descendants and tribes. Under NAGPRA, all federal institutions must inventory and identify Native American remains and items in their collections and consult with tribes regarding their return. Youpee said she and her father tried to repatriate items from UM years ago but alleged the university was “dragging their feet.”

Kuntz said “it is our full intent to be in compliance” with NAGPRA.

“It’s going to take time,” Kuntz added. “It requires a considerable amount of work. UM is working to do it the right way, and part of doing it right means working with each tribe individually.”

Kuntz said the university is hoping to hire a repatriation coordinator, whose full-time job would be to work with tribes to return items of significance.

'We came as a sovereign nation to correct them'

When Youpee, her staff and the council members met with UM collections staff last week, she said they were determined to bring the sacred objects home.

“Since UM doesn’t want to follow the federal law, we came as a sovereign nation to correct them,” she said. “They were housing items illegally, and through tribal law, we came to take them back.”

Youpee said the collections staff at the university helped her and her staff pack the items so they’d be safe for the drive home.

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Youpee and her staff repatriated a beaded buckskin pouch, rawhide drum with pictographs, beaded leather bags, pipe bags, medicine bags, three pairs of beaded moccasins, a Dakota girl’s dress, a Dakota cradleboard, Dakota quilt bag and Dakota star pouch.

The Fort Peck Cultural Resource Department worked with University of Montana staff to repatriate items of cultural significance. (Photo provided by Dyan Youpee)

When her staff saw the Dakota plains dress, Youpee said they wondered how it came to be housed at the university. 

“Who knows if she was killed in order to take that dress?” Youpee said. “Who knows if her grave was uncovered just to take that dress and to have something belonging to the Plains Dakota. It’s sad to wonder where it came from, who had it and what’s been the purpose thereafter.”

After they are properly cared for, the items will be on display at the Fort Peck Interpretive Center.

When her team brought the items out of the university, Youpee said there were “lots of tears.”

“That’s the hardest thing to explain in this work, that intangible emotional connection we have,” she said. “I can’t quantify emotional distress to help someone understand how important this is.”

Youpee said she shed “tears of courage.”

“I didn’t know how UM was going to respond, but I knew I had a whole tribe of people waiting for these things to come home,” she said.

When Youpee arrived on the Fort Peck Reservation, she brought the items to the tribal council chambers. She said passersby stopped to look at them in awe.

Dyan Youpee and her father, Curley Youpee. Dyan said her father has guided her in her work. (Photo provided by Dyan Youpee)

When someone looks at an item that’s directly affiliated with their family lineage, Youpee said the item can invoke an “intangible connection that (brings) healing to that person.”

“It gives them a sense of identity,” she said. “I’m a witness to how it saves them, how it protects them and how it opens their heart and mind to these early practices that keep us alive. … Culture is a breath of life.”

Youpee knows her efforts will resonate with tribes nationwide. She credits her father for her success. Curley Youpee died in 2021, but Dyan said he still guides her.

“People have said, ‘I’m sure your dad’s laughing and clapping and happy and war whooping around and singing a song for you,’” she said. “This work, this courage, it’s all built from him.”

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This article was first published in the Missoulian.