Last winter, University of North Dakota English professor Crystal Alberts started searching for a missing pipe, a headdress and moccasins once on display at the school’s library, heading deep into the recesses of the nearly 140-year-old campus.
The collection was removed from the library in 1988, after students questioned whether the university should be showcasing objects of religious significance to Native Americans. Alberts, a colleague and her assistant searched in back rooms and storage closets, opening unmarked cardboard boxes.
Inside one of them, Alberts spotted the pipe. The assistant reached for it, she said.
“Don’t touch it,” Alberts recalls saying.
She called Laine Lyons, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians who works for the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, and asked for help.
Lyons met with Alberts to offer advice on how to respectfully handle the items, watching as Alberts and her colleagues opened box after box. Lyons said she now feels naive thinking back on it, but she never expected what they found: more than 70 samples of human remains, many of them in boxes with no identifying information.
“The best way I can describe how we have found things is in the most inhumane way possible,” Lyons said. “Just completely disregarded that these were once people.”
She said it sunk in: Her university had failed to treat Native American remains with dignity and repatriate them to tribes, as required by federal law.
“In that moment,” she said, “we were another institution that didn’t do the right thing.”