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Our view: Remains were found at UND, but now the hard work begins

The right words were said and, it appears, appropriate actions were taken this week when it was announced that UND has found, at some place on campus, the remains of dozens of Indigenous ancestors and sacred objects.

Herald pull quote, 9/3/22
Herald graphic
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The right words were said and, it appears, appropriate actions were taken this week when it was announced that UND has found, at some place on campus, the remains of dozens of Indigenous ancestors and sacred objects.

Approximately 250 boxes of sacred objects were discovered earlier this year, as well as skeletal remains of some 70 American Indians.

“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,” UND President Andrew Armacost said Wednesday.

American Indian representatives were notified months ago about the discovery, but they asked UND to hold off on a public statement. Gov. Doug Burgum issued a comment, saying he is “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.” North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott offered the system’s full support and promised a “systemwide review of policies related to the respect and inclusion of our Indigenous population” and vowed compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

We commend UND for the action it has taken up to this point, including Armacost’s efforts to work with the region’s American Indian tribes, as well as his promise to learn more about how this happened.

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It’s important to note that this isn’t unique to UND. In 2021, a CNN report noted that a number of universities have taken efforts to return Indigenous remains and artifacts. They came into their possession through archaeology programs that exhumed them and also from donations from collectors, CNN reported. The University of California at Berkeley, for instance, had more than 9,000 remains in its possession as of 2020, according to CNN.

Just last month, the Missoulian – the newspaper in Missoula, Montana – reported on repatriation efforts between the University of Montana and American Indian tribes of that state. The newspaper reported that among the items in the university’s possession were 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.

So the issue at UND certainly is not singular, but perhaps the university’s response is. Again, we appreciate the solemn and inclusive approach the university chose to take as it made the announcement.

Now, we trust UND will be transparent through the remainder of the process. The public deserves to know more about where the items were found – officials wouldn’t say on Wednesday – and exactly how these items came into the university’s possession.

Armacost, after all, 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 that information is vital as they learn 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.”

Without those accounts being entirely public and transparent it will appear UND is holding back sensitive and embarrassing information, rather than striving to “avoid speculation about what’s been happening on campus,” as Armacost said.

The announcement was hard, no doubt. Now, the truly difficult work – the process of returning those items while investigating how it happened and staying transparent throughout – begins.

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