For Your Health

News from the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences

From the Dean: Repatriation and the SMHS

I hope that you have had a chance to see the video that was released earlier this week that I recorded with UND President Armacost. The video, along with a letter to the community from the President, addressed the current status of our repatriation efforts involving Native American ancestors and artifacts that will be returned to their tribes and lands. The efforts of UND’s repatriation committee, officially the NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) Compliance Committee, have intersected directly with the SMHS, given that we have Native American faculty who serve on the Committee and since our medical and health education programs have utilized human bones and tissues for over a century. While current anatomical donations are well-documented and inventoried, SMHS still has housed remains acquired during a time when donor intent wasn’t recorded or established. As a result of the efforts of the NAGPRA Compliance Committee, we now know that these remains include at least one Native American ancestor. For this I am deeply sorry and offer my sincere apologies to the members of the Indigenous community. I and our team should have been more pro-active and acted much earlier to identify any ancestors. I can only imagine the pain and heartache related to this discovery, especially coming at this time.

We are working with the Committee to finish a complete inspection and survey of all SMHS facilities here on the Grand Forks campus as well as at our regional campus locations in Fargo, Bismarck, and Minot so that the Committee can inventory and collect all human remains used in teaching. Once this is completed, we will work with the Committee to ensure that there is both repatriation of Native American ancestors and the establishment of equivalent processes for non-Indigenous remains. We commit to no longer using human anatomical specimens in teaching or for other purposes if the intent of the donor has not clearly been established. I again apologize for our failure to act earlier and more definitively and make a solid commitment that we will return ancestors to the land where they belong and the other remains to an appropriate, respectful resting place. I also want to thank Dr. Ken Ruit who has been the SMHS’s main liaison with the NAGPRA Compliance Committee; he and his colleagues have shown remarkable sensitivity, kindness, and caring over the past weeks along with a resolute commitment to doing the right thing.

These findings may undermine the trust that has been established between the SMHS and Native American communities and peoples, but we are strongly committed to restoring that trust, bringing the ancestors home, and continuing to build on SMHS’s and UND’s support of the American Indian community through initiatives like the Indians Into Medicine (INMED) program and the recently inaugurated Department of Indigenous Health and associated doctoral program in Indigenous Health. Likewise, we recently received additional funds from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for our own IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) program. INBRE programs are NIH-based projects that, among other goals, provide outreach activities to students at undergraduate institutions, community colleges, and tribal colleges participating in a state’s network.

We plan to do even more in the future to build on this framework as we demonstrate with actions our commitment to do better moving forward.

The long-standing and important relationship between the University/SMHS and the Indigenous people whose ancestors first inhabited this land is reflected in UND’s land acknowledgement statement. We pledge to continue building upon these relations and hope to rise to this challenging and painful occasion alongside UND in an effort to right a wrong that has gone on far too long.

Joshua Wynne, MD, MBA, MPH
Vice President for Health Affairs, UND
Dean, UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences