BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The University of North Dakota’s president apologized Wednesday for the school’s possession of Native American artifacts and human remains that should have been returned to tribes decades ago under federal law.
The Grand Forks-based school is working to repatriate the artifacts and remains to several tribal nations, though the process could take several years, UND President Andrew Armacost said.
“I sincerely express my apologies and heartfelt regrets that UND has not already repatriated these ancestors and sacred objects as they should have been years ago,” he said in a statement.
Faculty and staff first raised the issue months ago, and the university has been working on it since.
Armacost, in a video news conference, said partial skeletal remains from dozens of individuals, as well as about 250 boxes of sacred artifacts, were found in March. The process of searching for artifacts the university might have in its possession began late last year.
Laine Lyons, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and director of development at the the school’s College of Arts and Sciences, was in tears describing her emotions when she was looking for artifacts but found a box with human remains.
“I felt betrayed, angry and sad,” she said during the news conference Wednesday. At the time, she felt UND was “another institution that didn’t do the right thing.”
Lyons is a member of the university’s repatriation committee that is working to return the artifacts and remains.
University officials believe the human remains and artifacts were taken from sacred burial mounds “over the course of decades” from the 1940s to the 1980s, Armacost said.
The university was to have returned the remains years ago under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act that was approved in 1990.
“We believe that repatriation activities did previously happen at UND but how and why ancestors and sacred items remain on our campus is a mystery that we will have to answer in the course of our work,” he said.
Some 870,000 Native American artifacts — including nearly 110,000 human remains — that should be returned to tribes under federal law are still in the possession of colleges, museums and other institutions across the country, according to an Associated Press review of data maintained by the National Park Service.
The university immediately contacted several tribal nations of the discovery but initially made no public statements, based on consultation with tribal representatives, he said.
The university will hire cultural resource consultants to help with repatriation, Armacost said. The school also is offering counseling services to Native American students, faculty and staff.