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The University of North Dakota will return Native American remains to tribal homes

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Archivists at the University of North Dakota recently found human remains in their collections. They belong to people from Native nations. The university will work with tribal governments to return their ancestors and related artifacts. Minnesota Public Radio's Dan Gunderson reports.

DAN GUNDERSON, BYLINE: Human remains were found in storage earlier this year when university employees were searching the Grand Forks, N.D., campus for an artifact sought by a Native American tribe.

Laine Lyons is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and a UND employee. She recalls the shock, anger and disappointment of finding the first human remains.

LAINE LYONS: My heart sunk into my stomach. It was at that moment that I knew we were another institution that didn't do the right thing.

GUNDERSON: Lyons is a member of a repatriation committee guiding the university in following federal law regarding Native American remains. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act became law in 1990. The law requires the return of human remains, funerary objects and sacred objects held by universities, museums and federal, state or local governments.

At a recent press conference, University of North Dakota President Andrew Armacost said the university is still working to complete an inventory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW ARMACOST: The number of ancestors that we have here currently on campus can be measured in the dozens. When we include other sacred artifacts, we have well over 250 boxes. 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.

GUNDERSON: Armacost said tribal nations will lead the repatriation work with the full support of the university.

North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission executive director Nathan Davis says it will be a long, painful process. Davis says there are no traditional ceremonies for reburying ancestors removed from their graves.

NATHAN DAVIS: It violates who we are. It violates our culture. So when we say this hurts, it's because it touches our soul. It touches our spirit because, in our ways, this is not supposed to happen. Our loved ones are supposed to rest.

GUNDERSON: The university hopes to complete the repatriation of ancestors and artifacts within two years.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Gunderson.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEATON HENSON AND REN FORD'S "PETRICHOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Gunderson