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Skeletal remains of dozens of Indigenous ancestors, sacred objects found on UND's campus

While the total is not yet known, around 200 boxes of sacred objects have been located and the remains of around 70 ancestors have also been located so far.

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UND Professor of Psychology Doug McDonald speaks during a virtual press conference at UND on Aug. 31. (Screenshot from virtual press conference)
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GRAND FORKS — UND President Andrew Armacost expressed his deepest apologies to tribal nations across the country and committed to making amends with those groups after the discovery of partial skeletal remains of dozens of Indigenous ancestors, as well as sacred objects from Indigenous communities, on UND’s campus.

“Our intent of sharing this news today is to apologize to tribal nations across North America, to avoid speculation about what’s been happening on campus and to offer our public commitment to those tribal nations and to the entire nation that we’re going to return the ancestors and the artifacts to their homes,” he said.

Armacost said the university’s knowledge about how this happened “must include discussions with people involved in UND’s archaeological research efforts in prior decades.” He said those accounts will be important as leaders piece together why the items and remains were not returned sooner “and also to address systemic issues at the university that led to where we are today.”

While the total is not yet known, as work to inventory what has been found is continuing, around 250 boxes of sacred objects have been located and the remains of around 70 ancestors. The findings came as a shock to many across campus.

The university now begins the process of returning the discoveries to their tribal homes, a process known as repatriation.

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Armacost said the university will “work diligently until all ancestors and sacred objects are returned home, regardless of how long it takes.” The process of repatriation could take years, he said.

Under the 1990 federal law known as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, UND had the responsibility to turn over the ancestors and sacred objects to the tribal lands.

“... The university had a responsibility to return ancestors and sacred objects to their tribal lands,” Armacost said in a campus letter. “Although this effort inexplicably fell short at UND, we are fully committed to righting this wrong.”

The university has formed a NAGPRA Compliance Committee to work with tribal representatives in guiding its repatriation efforts, explaining cultural protocols and assisting UND in meeting the requirements of state and federal laws.

Laine Lyons, an enrolled member of Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and director of development with the College of Arts & Sciences, said university members, including herself and Crystal Alberts, associate professor and director, UND Writers Conference, began working late last year on trying to identify sacred objects the university may have in its possession. At that same time, the university also began developing policies of how the university came across these items and how to take care of them.

In the course of that work, sacred objects, like a ceremonial pipe and other items, were located.

In March, while attempting to look for other sacred items, Lyons, alongside Dr. Don Warne, then director of the INMED program at the UND medical school, found a box that contained the remains of an ancestor inside.

Lyons said the area where the box was found was shut down immediately and everything was moved to a secure location, university administration was also notified.

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In a press conference held Wednesday afternoon, Armacost declined to say what building in which the items were found and where they are being securely stored now. He said work will continue to be done to learn about how this happened.

Some have questioned why it took the university several months to come forward with these findings. Armacost, and several others who were on the conference panel, said in order to conduct this process in a “dignified and respectful manner,” UND made no public statements during the initial contact phase with tribal authorities and the appropriate state and federal agencies. This decision was made with the guidance and wishes provided by the tribal representatives. He said during the early stages of this process, the university has observed Indigenous customs and traditions in the handling of the ancestors and sacred objects, to the best of its abilities.

“The response of each tribal representative has been common: anger, sadness, acceptance of our apologies and appreciation that we are involving them from the outset of this work,” Armacost said.

During a Zoom call earlier in the day to inform Indigenous students and faculty of the university’s findings, many speakers said they know this is a heavy day for the university, but especially for Indigenous students, faculty and staff.

At least two tribal representatives who joined the call also expressed their thanks to UND and Armacost for how the university has handled the situation thus far, adding that UND followed tribal leaders’ wishes in waiting to tell the public about its findings

Armacost hopes UND’s work to speak with tribal representatives from the beginning can serve as a model for other universities and museums across the country.

Some of the ancestors and other items may have been taken directly from sacred burial mounds in excavations that took place over the course of decades -- from the 1940s into the 1980s, Armacost said. It is believed some repatriation efforts were conducted by the university before, Armacost said, but how and why ancestors and these sacred items remain on campus is “a mystery that we will have to answer in the course of our work.”

North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission Executive Director Nathan Davis said he was upset and angered when he first learned about the findings earlier this year, but commended the work of UND and its repatriation process.

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“Science can no longer be an excuse from preventing our ancestors from returning home,” Davis said.

The university has also worked with government agencies to ensure it complies with the law through the repatriation process.

Armacost said he does not believe the university will face any civil or criminal penalties under the repatriation federal law, but even if it did, he said the university would still come forward with this information.

UND will be hiring cultural resource consultants to help with this process of repatriation.

Doug McDonald, UND psychology professor, likened the situation to the mental health response to the 1997, when floodwaters came into Grand Forks but then slowly receded. It took months, even years, for some to recover from the flood; he said he feels similar about this situation at UND.

During his press conference remarks, McDonald said he knows there were many scars left behind -- on both sides of the issue -- as UND changed its nickname. This has been even more difficult.

“I can speak with assurance that this has been harder and tougher,” he said.

“This is a slow-moving disaster for many of us. … There’s no one on this committee that signed up for this by any means and there’s no one on this committee that knew anything about this. We’re doing our best,” said McDonald, who has been at UND for more than 30 years and is the director of the Indians into Psychology program.

The university has a number of resources and counseling services on campus to support Native American students, faculty and staff. UND has also launched a repatriation webpage that explains UND’s repatriation process to date.

In a statement, Gov. Doug Burgum said he was “heartbroken by the deeply insensitive treatment of these Indigenous ancestral remains and artifacts” and extended the state’s “deepest apologies to the sovereign tribal nations in North Dakota and beyond.”

“This dark chapter, while extremely hurtful, also presents an opportunity to enhance our understanding and respect for Indigenous cultures and to become a model for the nation by conducting this process with the utmost deference to the wishes, customs and traditions of tribal nations,” he said. He gave appreciation to UND and Armacost for the “deeply thoughtful, respectful approach” the university is taking on the repatriation efforts.

North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott said the system fully supports UND’s efforts and added the university system will coordinate a “systemwide review of policies related to the respect and inclusion of our Indigenous population and ensure we are compliant with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).”

During the morning Zoom meeting, Alberts said the university is doing its best to make amends for all the wrongs that have been committed in the previous years against the Indigenous people, while adding she knows university staff won’t be able to make those amends entirely.

“We’re going to bring them home,” she said of the ancestors’ remains, “not because the law requires it but because it’s the right thing to do.”

Related Topics: UNIVERSITY OF NORTH DAKOTA
Sydney Mook has been the managing editor at the Herald since April 2021. In her role she edits and assigns stories and helps reporters develop their work for readers.

Mook has been with the Herald since May 2018 and was first hired as the Herald's higher education reporter where she covered UND and other happenings in state higher education. She was later promoted to community editor in 2019.


For story pitches contact her at smook@gfherald.com or call her at 701-780-1134.
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