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Seek out missing Native artifacts resulted in the discovery of bodies stored in probably the most inhumane way possible

Last winter, University of North Dakota English professor Crystal Alberts started looking for a missing pipe, a headdress and moccasins once on display at the schools library, heading deep in to the recesses of the nearly 140-year-old campus.

The collection was taken off the library in 1988, after students questioned if the university ought to be showcasing objects of religious significance to Native Americans. Alberts, a colleague and her assistant searched in back rooms and storage closets, opening unmarked cardboard boxes.

Inside one of these, Alberts spotted the pipe. The assistant reached for this, she said.

Dont touch it, Alberts recalls saying.

Image: Crystal Alberts
University of North Dakota English professor Crystal Alberts sought help from Native colleagues after getting a missing pipe with religious significance in a box in a storage room.Grant McMillan

She called Laine Lyons, an associate of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians who works for the UND Alumni Association & Foundation, and asked for help.

Lyons met Alberts to greatly help advise her on how best to respectfully handle the things, watching because they opened box after box. Lyons said she feels nave now thinking back onto it, but she never expected what they found: A lot more than 70 human remains, most of them in boxes without identifying information.

The most effective way I could describe how exactly we have discovered things is in probably the most inhumane way possible, Lyons said. Just completely disregarded these were once people.

She said it sunk in: Her university had didn’t treat Native American remains with dignity and repatriate them to tribes, as required by federal law.

For the reason that moment, she said, we were another institution that didnt do the proper thing.

Image: Laine Lyons
Laine Lyons.UND Alumni Association

When the bodies were discovered, UND President Andrew Armacost said administrators reached out to tribes initially a half-dozen and today 13 to start out the procedure of returning the remains and much more than 100 religious objects.

What weve done as a university is terrible, and I’ll continue steadily to apologize for this, Armacost said in a Wednesday news conference, where he vowed to see every item and ancestor found to be returned to the correct tribal nation.

But that process likely will undoubtedly be daunting and may take years and perhaps, could be impossible due to the dearth of information, Lyons said.

I’ve fears that maybe we wont have the ability to identify people or possibly we wont have the ability to place them back where they must be placed, she said.

Because the passing of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990, federal law has required institutions that receive federal funding to catalog their collections with the National Parks Service and work toward returning them to the tribal nations these were extracted from. However the University of North Dakota does not have any entries in the federal inventory, despite the fact that its administrators acknowledge it has possessed Indigenous artifacts since its inception in 1883.

The discovery at UND is illustrative of a wider, systemic problem which has plagued Indigenous communities for years and years. Regardless of the decades-old law, a lot more than 100,000 remain housed in institutions in the united states. The action and apology by North Dakota administrators points to a national reckoning as tribal nations are increasing pressure on public universities, museums, and also libraries to adhere to regulations and catalog and return the Native American ancestors and cultural items within their possession.

We have been heartbroken by the deeply insensitive treatment of the indigenous ancestral remains and artifacts and extend our deepest apologies to the sovereign tribal nations in North Dakota and beyond, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said in a statement. This dark chapter, while extremely hurtful, also presents a chance to enhance our understanding and respect for indigenous cultures also to turn into a model for the country by conducting this technique with the most deference to the wishes, customs and traditions of tribal nations.

Image: Andrew Armacost
UND President Andrew Armacost.Shawna Schill / UND

Armacost said he and his colleagues made a decision to honor the requests of tribal officials never to announce the discovery until a consensus could possibly be built on how best to handle the remains, and until Indigenous faculty, staff and students could possibly be made alert to the problem in a respectful way.

Tribal officials and Indigenous archivists said that UND leaders ought to be commended for how theyve responded, praising Armacosts willingness to consult tribes soon after the discovery and publicly apologize for the universitys failings. However they also known as for accountability.

It is usually extremely traumatic and hurtful when our ancestors remains have already been disturbed and misplaced, Mark Fox, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara Nation, said in a statement to NBC News. We are monitoring this matter closely to make sure that our ancestors remains are repatriated as quickly so when respectfully as you possibly can beneath the circumstances.

Many universities and museums have NAGPRA officers on staff who inventory Indigenous remains and cultural items, affiliate them making use of their tribes of origin, and finally return them. However, UND doesn’t have its NAGPRA office. The university has appointed a committee to examine the findings, and Armacost told NBC News that employing staff to facilitate NAGPRA cases is in mind.

Dianne Derosiers, a historic preservation officer for the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, a tribal nation in North Dakota, said she really wants to know who’s in charge of unceremoniously locking away the human remains in university storage. Id like answers compared to that question, she said.

Armacost said that learning who’s accountable will undoubtedly be area of the universitys investigation.

Lyons said she hopes the UNDs discovery is a wake-up call to other institutions which are dragging their feet with regards to compliance with NAGPRA.

Look at everything you have, look at your past, she said. And when you understand something, you have to say it rather than hide it rather than pass it off and await someone else to accomplish it. You should confront that immediately.

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