“The best way I can describe how we have found things is in the most inhumane way possible,” Laine Lyons, who works for the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, told NBC News. “Just completely disregarded that these were once people.”
The three then realized that the university failed to treat Native American remains with dignity and repatriate them to tribes as required by federal law. According to NBC News, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act passed in 1990 requires Native American remains and artifacts to be repatriated to their rightful tribe.
“It is always extremely traumatic and hurtful when our ancestors’ remains have been disturbed and misplaced,” Mark Fox, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, told NBC News. “We will be monitoring this matter closely to ensure that our ancestor’s remains are repatriated as quickly and as respectfully as possible under the circumstances.”
Prior to the law, advocates noted that artifacts and remains of Native individuals were often sold domestically and internationally in museums or auction houses. The act was the first civil and human rights law in which Congress ruled on the treatment of Native American bodies and sacred items.
“(The act), of course, was needed to rectify centuries of history where colonizers have been freely digging up our ancestors and taking our cultural items,” Shannon O’Loughlin, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and attorney for the Association on American Indian Affairs, told USA TODAY.
In addition to the remains, a missing pipe, headdress, and moccasins once on display at the school’s library were found.
According to the university, the Native artifacts were first brought to the university by the school’s first faculty member, Henry Montgomery, the author of Remains of Prehistoric Man in the Dakotas, who acquired remains and artifacts through excavations.
“The remains of additional ancestors were brought to UND by subsequent anthropological and archaeological digs in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. One item was donated to the University in 2007,” the university’s repatriation website read.
According to a press release, following the discovery, the university is now working to send the remains to their correct location.
“Coming on the heels of other recent revelations about historic wrongs inflicted on Indigenous people in the United States and Canada, members of our tribal communities in the region will undoubtedly be deeply affected by this news from UND,” the university’s president, Andrew Armacost, said in the statement.
Lyons told NBC News that while the school is now making efforts to return the remains, the process could take years and may be impossible due to lack of information.
“I have fears that maybe we won’t be able to identify people or maybe we won’t be able to place them back where they should be placed,” she said.
Unfortunately, UND is not the first U.S. school to have discovered the human remains of Native Americans on campus. Harvard acknowledged in June that it was illegally holding on to the remains of about 7,000 Indigenous people, but that’s not all: The University of Tennessee also began the reunification process of over 2,000 remains in 2020.
“We are heartbroken by the deeply insensitive treatment of these 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.
He continued: “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.”
According to CNN, while the UND staff members discovered about 250 boxes of remains in March, the discovery was only made public this week per the request of Indigenous representatives.