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Last winter, University of North Dakota (UND) English professor Crystal Alberts started searching for a missing pipe, a headdress and moccasins once displayed inside the school’s library, but she and two others would discover something far more sinister.
Alberts, a colleague and her assistant looked in back rooms and storage closets, opening unmarked cardboard boxes and were shocked to the core to discover more than 70 samples of Native American human remains, many of them in boxes with no identifying information.
Alberts then called Laine Lyons, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians who works for the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, and asked for help.
Lyons met with Alberts to offer advice on how to respectfully handle the items, watching as Alberts and her colleagues opened box after box.
“The best way I can describe how we have found things is in the most inhumane way possible,” Lyons said. “Just completely disregarded that these were once people.”
Once the bodies were discovered, UND President Andrew Armacost stated administrators contacted tribes — at first a half-dozen and now 13 — to begin returning the remains and more than 100 religious objects.
“What we’ve done as a university is terrible, and I will continue to apologize for it,” Armacost said in a Wednesday news conference, where he vowed to ensure every item and ancestor found to be returned to the proper tribal nation.
Tribal nations are increasing pressure on public universities, museums and libraries to comply with the law, cataloging and returning Native American ancestors and cultural items still in their possession. Since the passage 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 they were taken from.
Information in this article was obtained via NBC News writer Graham Lee Brewer, a member of the Cherokee Nation, based in Norman, Oklahoma.