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Mike Jacobs: UND moves to respect Indigenous people

The discovery of Indigenous remains and artifacts has happened elsewhere, too. But it may be more consequential here, given the fraught relationship between UND and North Dakota’s Indigenous nations.

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Dismay is the word that came to mind when news broke last week that UND had discovered boxes of Indigenous artifacts and remains of Indigenous ancestors.

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Other words with the same negative prefix came along: Disturbing. Disheartening. Disappointing.

UND is not alone in facing this issue. As the Herald pointed out in its editorial Saturday, Sept. 3, the University of Montana is working to “repatriate” artifacts and remains, and so is the University of California at Berkeley, which said it has 9,000 items.

The issue may be more consequential here, though, given the fraught relationship between UND and North Dakota’s Indigenous nations. Some of that stems from the long, drawn-out and still not-quite-settled controversy about the “Fighting Sioux” nickname and logo. In a round of budget adjustments in an earlier administration, UND reduced its academic programs in Indian Studies, for example. There’s rebuilding going on in the department now.

Of course, in other ways, the university has a proud tradition of celebrating Indigenous culture. The Wacipi pow wow held every spring is evidence of that. The university has also developed programs to prepare native students for careers in medicine and other professions.

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Still, the knowledge that UND not only developed a collection of sacred objects and human remains is … well those d-words apply there, too. Of course, this occurred in an earlier time and in the interest of scholarship, but it was, and is, offensive.

UND made it worse by holding onto these materials despite a federal law mandating that such collections be returned to the nations from which they came.

Now the university is faced with the challenge of returning the materials to their rightful owners and repairing its reputation.

That work has begun.

The Herald’s editorial noted that “the right words were said.” That’s certainly true, but they might have come too late.

President Andrew Armacost took responsibility for leading the effort and worked for several months behind the scenes before releasing any information about the collection. Some details are still missing, despite an impressive “reveal” at a news conference Wednesday, Aug. 31.

The president evidently felt that keeping quiet was the proper thing to do. I respect that, and I won’t criticize the secrecy.

I will point out, however, that it would have been impossible just a decade ago. Journalism in Grand Forks was much more robust. There were more outlets and many more pairs of ears listening for leads.

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There are many fewer reporters in Grand Forks today than there were 10 years ago, when the Herald alone had a couple of dozen paying attention all the time. Today that number is about half a dozen.

I understand and accept that reality, and as I have written in the past, I think the Herald is a strong local paper that we all should be reading and supporting.

As for UND’s secrecy? It probably wasn’t necessary. Owning up earlier would have allowed fuller coverage and, I think, created greater understanding across the state.

It’s too bad that didn’t happen.

Now that the repatriation effort is underway, all of us should give the process our respect and support. The work ahead is to build a tighter, more knowledgeable, more comfortable relationship between the university, Indigenous people and other citizens of the state.

In this regard, the word that comes to mind is “respect.”

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.

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