UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

At press conference, Armacost answers questions about repatriation

Tribal representatives express support for UND’s outreach and approach

Nathan Davis, executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, left, joins UND President Andrew Armacost and Laine Lyons, UND Alumni Association & Foundation and member of the UND Repatriation Committee at a press conference on Wednesday, Aug. 31, to discuss repatriation. Not pictured is Doug McDonald, UND professor of psychology and member of the UND Repatriation Committee. UND Today image

At a press conference on Wednesday, Aug. 31, UND President Andrew Armacost apologized for the discovery on campus of sacred objects from Indigenous communities that require repatriation to the tribal nations from which they came. Armacost said the University is committed to respectfully carrying out the repatriation process through to its conclusion.

Included among the discovered objects are human remains, referred to as ancestors in the tradition of tribal nations. The collection of artifacts and ancestors is still being identified, but more than 200 boxes of items were discovered on campus.

“Our intent of sharing this news today is to apologize to tribal nations across North America, to avoid speculation about what’s been happening on campus and to offer our public commitment to those tribal nations, and to the entire nation, that we are going to return the ancestors and the artifacts to their homes,” Armacost said.

Tribal representatives who participated in the conference said they appreciated the inclusive way UND is approaching the process of repatriation. Upon discovery of the ancestors and sacred objects, UND contacted tribal chairs to ask for their participation in identifying the ancestors and sacred objects.

Douglas Yankton, chair of the Spirit Lake Tribe in Fort Totten, N.D., said he understands Indigenous students may feel angry about the discovery, but called for repatriation to be handled “the best way we can” while providing support for those who may be hurting. Yankton said he was grateful that tribal nations were quickly contacted to take part in repatriation.

“I was glad that the president brought it immediately to the tribal chairs’ attention and traveled all the way to Bismarck, as matter of fact,” he said.

South Dakota State Rep. Tamara St. John, R-Sisseton, said she understands that students’ first reaction to the discovery of ancestors may be shock, but an opportunity exists to educate students instead of leaving them with feelings of anger and devastation.

A member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation, St. John is the archivist for the Sisseton Wahpeton tribal nation in South Dakota and has experience in dealing with repatriation. She commended Armacost for quickly involving tribal nations.

“I want to be clear that the tribes have protocols and procedures for all of these things, and those are taking place,” St. John told UND Today after the press conference. “It was really nice to hear within the president’s words statements on behalf of the tribes reflected. That’s really important. I commend the university for that.”

Dianne Desrosiers, also a tribal official with the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, said it was at the request of tribal nations that UND delayed speaking publicly about repatriation until the press conference. Repatriation, she said, is a very sensitive issue, and the tribes requested confidentiality until they had time to discuss the situation and plan how to proceed.

“We did ask that it be kept confidential for as long as possible, and I appreciate and thank the university for honoring that for as long as we could,” Desrosiers said.

Joining Armacost at the press conference on Wednesday were Nathan Davis (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa), executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission; Doug McDonald (Oglala Lakota), UND professor of psychology and member of the UND Repatriation Committee, and Laine Lyons (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa), UND Alumni Association & Foundation and member of the UND Repatriation Committee.

Davis, like other Indigenous people participating on the press conference, said he also felt angry and hurt when he was told of the discovery of ancestors on the UND campus. Science, he said, can no longer be used as an excuse to prevent the repatriation of ancestors.

But Davis said Armacost understands the need to respectfully handle ancestors and sacred objects. He commended Armacost for ensuring the inclusion of the tribal nations. Moreover, the process at UND has the potential to act as a blueprint for other institutions during instances of repatriation, one that is sensitive to how Indigenous people honor their ancestors, he said.

“We have a very unique opportunity to honor them by changing the way that not only North Dakota but the United States itself approaches repatriation,” Davis said.

McDonald compared the situation at UND to a flood, calling it a slow-moving disaster. McDonald guided the mental health response at UND during the flood of 1997, which required the evacuation of the campus and surrounding city. He said a primary focus at the Repatriation Committee is guiding the mental-health response to the different kind of “flood” during the repatriation process.

Lyons was in the first group of people who searched for and found sacred items on campus. She wasn’t aware that ancestors were being kept in building on campus and was present at their first discovery. She described the hurt she felt and said members of the group felt betrayed.

Lyons was among those who, along with Armacost, began reaching out to tribal nations to inform them of the discovery. Though tribal representatives expressed their dismay, she noted they were also appreciative of being included, which, she said she was told, is not the norm surrounding repatriation.

“Being transparent, honest and respectful will continue to guide this university,” she said.