Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Talks About Discovery of Ancestral Remains at UND
FARGO, N.D. (KVRR) — A tribe in our community is speaking out about the discovery last month of two hundred boxes of tribal ancestral remains somewhere on the UND campus.
The boxes also include tribal artifacts.
A U.S. law passed in 1990 requires anyone who receives federal funding to repatriate, or send home, ancestral remains to the people with whom they originated.
KVRR’s Emily Welker spoke at length with White Earth’s tribal historic preservation officer about UND’s news conference, and the tribe’s reaction.
UND President Andrew Armacost shares university staff found Native American ancestral remains and artifacts on campus in March.
It includes partial skeletal remains from dozens of people.
The 250 boxes were moved to a central location this month.
In a virtual press conference with no reporters allowed in the room, Armacost would not say where on campus the remains were found or where they were moved citing privacy.
Research is being done to figure out who the remains belong to and why they were on campus.
Armacost says they may have been used as teaching aides and educators did not know they were ancestral remains.
He says he reached out to 13 tribal nations when he found out what happened and takes full responsibility
Jaime Arsenault, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the White Earth tribe, spoke with KVRR’s Emily Welker via Zoom about the recent discovery.
She says she was notified via phone call the night before the news conference August 31.
It was unusual to see the UND hold a news conference at that point, she says, because it can be months if not years before a public announcement, and usually only after the remains are repatriated.
That’s not what bothers her, says Arsenault. She says it’s evident people now addressing the remains and the repatriation process recognize something has to be done, and she’s summoning patience for the process and their part in it.
What does bother Arsenault is that those boxes of remains sat there 30 years on since the 1990 law was passed, and no one said anything. She says it’s clear someone had to have known they were there during that time.
Arsenault has not seen any of the documents that were stored with the remains and does not know if they are White Earth remains or another tribe’s. She says that’s part of why repatriation takes so long, because it’s so intricately involved and so many possible tribes could be their rightful owners.
In this case, it’s possible they’re not even remains and artifacts that belong to the region’s tribes.
They could come from California, or other states across the U.S.
Part of Arsenault’s responsibilities for the White Earth tribe also include tracking down other records and items that represent the tribe’s history and culture.
It’s not just a question of returning the human remains to their ancestral lands and people, she says.
It’s also mending the hole left when cultural objects are sitting on a shelf in a university instead of with the people who have lost them from their traditions and artwork and heritage for generations.
It’s part of a longstanding pattern in mainstream culture in the U-S of separating native people from their identity — everything from taking children to boarding schools and forcing them to cut their hair and stop speaking Anishinaabe, to the modern crisis facing murdered and missing indigenous people who so often are lost and unaccounted for.
And she says that while it’s hard for people to speak up and make that first contact about an artifact — or remains — they have in their possession, she says it can be a deeply rewarding process.
“They stay involved long after repatriation is completed,” she says. “They want to see the things go home again.”