The University of North Dakota in Grand Forks has begun the process of repatriating sacred objects and ancestral remains that belong to Indigenous communities that were found weeks ago on the school’s campus.
At a news conference Wednesday, school President Andrew Armacost said in November 2021, the university formed a UND repatriation committee to develop policies on the process of returning Native artifacts to tribal lands.
In late February and early March, the committee found a significant number of artifacts on campus, including ancestral remains. Armacost noted that the records of what is in possession of the university is incomplete but there are more than 250 boxes of artifacts and the number of ancestors “can be measured in the dozens.” Wednesday’s statement and news conference were the first public statements issued since.
The university has been in touch with 13 tribes, a number he says will continue to grow, to gain their advice and counsel to make sure the process is done correctly and completed.
“First, I sincerely express my apologies and heartfelt regrets that UND has not already repatriated these ancestors and sacred objects as they should have been years ago,” Armacost said in a statement. “Second, I pledge my administration’s full support and commitment to the tribal nations impacted by this mistake. Our primary goal now is to work diligently until all ancestors and sacred objects are returned home, regardless of how long it takes.”
On March 3, the first ancestor was discovered by members of the committee.
Fighting back tears, Laine Lyons, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, said it is a day and moment she will never forget. Lyons is a committee member.
“In that moment, my heart sunk into my stomach,” she said. “It was at that moment that I knew we were another institution that didn't do the right thing.”
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After sharing the news with other committee members, many felt the same feelings of betrayal, anger, sadness, frustration and exhaustion, she said.
Some 870,000 Native American artifacts that should be returned to tribes under federal law are still in the possession of colleges, museums and other institutions across the country, according to an Associated Press review of data maintained by the National Park Service.
As the search continued to other areas and more remains were found, each new discovery “felt like a deeper and deeper cut in our hearts,” Lyons said.
In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, commonly known as NAGPRA. It is a federal law enacted to protect and provide the repatriation of “human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony.”
According to the National Park Service website, any “federal agencies and museums, universities, state agencies, local governments, or any institution that receives Federal funds must comply with NAGPRA.”
Along with working with tribes, the university has also been working with government agencies to ensure the law is being followed correctly.
Taking questions from the media, Armacost was asked about the timeline of events and why it took as much time as it did to make the information available to the public, as well as why the news conference wasn’t live-streamed.
After the discovery of the remains, he said the university immediately began working with tribal representatives in the region and following their lead was an important priority.
“The fact that it took us six months to get here, we went as fast as humanly possible, speaking with as many people as we could to get to this point,” Armacost said. “So there is no interest or intent on hiding this. We're as public as possible.”
He added the recording will be posted on the university website for all to watch.
Armacost recognizes that the process of repatriating the objects and remains is going to take a lot of hard work and possibly several years. However, he and the university remain committed to following through until its completion.
He also added in the statement that many people and communities will be affected by the news.
“While I cannot take away their pain, I can apologize on behalf of UND for our mistakes,” Armacost said in the statement. “The tribal communities have my assurance that as a University, we are strongly committed to repatriation.”
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Throughout the process, it has been a priority of the committee to be transparent, as well as documenting and recording their efforts so that they might be a model for other universities and museums in the future.
Doug McDonald, Oglala Lakota, is a psychology professor at the university and is on the committee as well. He said they don’t want other universities or organizations to be blindsided as they were.
“We don't want other universities or other organizations to have to do what we've had to do, which is essentially scramble from scratch,” McDonald said.
What was made clear during the news conference is how difficult this has been for all involved. North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission Executive Director Nathan Davis, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, said everything he’s been taught and learned in his life, he’s never been taught to put relatives back in the ground.
“It violates who we are, it violates our culture,” Davis said. “So when we say this hurts, it's because it touches our soul, it touches our spirit because in our ways, this is not supposed to happen. Our loved ones are supposed to rest.”
The university is not facing criminal or civil penalties under NAGPRA and Armacost said that was not a dissuading factor.
“This is too important and we owe it to the tribes to make sure we bring their ancestors home and I think that's an important point,” Armacost said. “So even though I speculate that there isn't any penalty, that is absolutely not the reason we came forward. We would have come forward anyway.”
The university has launched a repatriation webpage that contains the statement from Armacost, answers to frequently asked questions and links for mental health support for those affected by the announcement.
The committee held discussions with Indigenous students on campus and Lyons said many felt the same anger and devastation the committee felt.
“They can feel that way and that's okay. We've all felt that way,” Lyons said. “If we anticipate certain actions, maybe, but that's their right. They have every right to do what they need to do with their emotions.”
She added that she’d be more worried if the students didn’t feel anything.
“It means they still care. They care about our people. They care about our ancestors, they care about each other and that's important,” she said.
It is still early in the process and McDonald said there is still plenty to be done.
“Pray for our continued healing because there's still a lot of work to do to bring the ancestors home.”
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