Moccasins recovered from the University of North Dakota. UND faculty have not yet issued details on identification. (courtesy UND Art Collections)

For too long, United States museums and universities have held onto the cultural heritage of Indigenous tribes. Ceremonial headdresses, items of clothing, pipes and tools, and even human remains continue to resurface in archaeology departments and special collections, reflecting decades of institutional neglect. Accordingly, when the University of North Dakota (UND) revealed that faculty members had discovered hundreds of boxes containing sacred objects and fragmentary remains of tribal ancestors, controversy ensued around how such oversight could persist. 

UND’s announcement on Wednesday, August 31, detailed plans to repatriate all remains and artifacts, which include ceremonial pipes and regalia, sacred headdresses with eagle feathers, textiles, moccasins, bead and quillwork, pottery shards, and drums. Curators and professors are now working alongside tribal representatives to take inventory and map out the return. 

Laine Lyons (standing) visits Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in summer 2021 with UND colleagues Don Warne, Monica Mayer, and Allison Kelliher. Warne and Kelliher are currently on the repatriation committee with Lyons. (photo by Dave Dodds, courtesy UND)

At a press conference, Laine Lyons, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians who works with the university’s Alumni Association and Foundation, spoke through tears of the generational trauma inflicted on Native tribes. In an interview with Hyperallergic, Lyons claimed the sacred objects show signs of longstanding damage.

“We were looking at those artifacts and noticed the deterioration of feathers and bleeding of colors, and it appears that many of the artifacts in that state have not been preserved correctly,” she said. “They may have been displayed nicely in some situations, but there was apparently no care plan in place.”

While the news broke last week, the discovery of artifacts dates back to late November 2021. When ancestral remains were uncovered in March 2022, internal discussions began between the university and tribal representatives from the Spirit Lake Tribe and Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, among others. Early reports incorrectly claimed that 70 “bodies” were recovered, but they are actually partial remains, including pieces of bones and sacred burial items looted from graves. 

For Lyons, this speaks to the exploitative relationship between colonial institutions and disenfranchised Native communities.

“In my opinion, institutions should not have these kinds of artifacts unless they were directly given to them by tribes or tribal partnerships,” Lyons told Hyperallergic. “People have to realize these are not just works of art; they are pieces of someone’s culture and therefore a part of them, too.”

Memorial Union on UND campus (courtesy UND)

Many of the objects and remains date as far back as 900 CE, while others span the post-contact period up to 1950. Some originated from federally approved excavation sites between the 1940s and ’80s; however, others allegedly came from illegally desecrated gravesites. 

According to UND English Professor Crystal Alberts, who was present during the discovery, faculty members were first tipped off to the mistreatment of sacred objects back in 1988, when a student of Native descent noticed a ceremonial pipe was inappropriately displayed at UND’s library. Alberts, Lyons, and UND Art Collections Curator Sarah Heitkamp learned of this last November while developing a policy for receiving and handling cultural artifacts. In searching for the original pipe, they happened upon the remains.

“We could not form a policy around Indigenous archives until we had a full idea of what UND had in its possession,” Alberts told Hyperallergic. “We started taking a campus-wide inventory and issued a call to similar departments at other institutions. Sarah, her assistant, and I went into one workspace to gather information from boxes, which were numbered according to Smithsonian trinomials. In the very first one we opened, we saw a different ceremonial pipe and beads taken from a grave.”

In the aftermath, UND administrators have been working with tribal representatives to help with identification and discuss how to proceed. Ultimately, they will decide the proper course of action, as each nation has its own protocols, and some have already discussed plans for reburial. Alberts claims that the faculty and tribal committee are in early stages of repatriation talks, but the process may take years.

“There is still so much work to do, because the university never did the preparation that already needed to be done,” she added.

Another pair of recovered moccasins (courtesy UND Art Collections)

UND was founded on Dakota territory in 1883, six years before North Dakota gained statehood, and more than 116,000 Native remains are still stored in similar institutions across the US. While federal law requires universities to return all Indigenous remains in their possession, UND has no such entries. In a statement, UND President Andrew Armacost issued an apology and pledged his commitment to full repatriation.

“When the federal law known as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was approved in 1990, the university had a responsibility to return ancestors and sacred objects to their tribal lands,” Armacost wrote. “Although this effort inexplicably fell short at UND, we are fully committed to righting this wrong.”

Billie Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.