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November 18: Professor Montgomery's Research Projects

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The November 1888 Student, the University of North Dakota's monthly magazine from that era, reported:

“[Professor Henry] Montgomery … during the past five years has devoted considerable time to the exploration of artificial mounds in Dakota. The greater portion of this work ... has been in the neighborhood of Devils' Lake, Fort Totten, and Inkster.”

He opined that, “the higher portions of North Dakota were very thickly populated ... in certain places there were vast cities...” He said, “I delight to look at and think of the pretty scenes around Fort Totten, and would give a great deal to know the name of the great city, which flourished in that vicinity many centuries ago...”

The article went on to report: “Montgomery considers these mounds the work of a race wholly extinct, and in many respects quite different from the Indians of the present time. This is evident from a study of their skulls and also the samples of handiwork found in the mounds. It is his opinion that they belong to a Mongolian race, not such as we see in America, but a larger-sized people. Some of the skeletons taken from Dakota mounds were more than six feet in length.” Today, Montgomery’s interpretation is seen as quite erroneous, little more than wishful thinking.

Montgomery opened several mounds near the head of Forest River in 1883 and 1885, and 21 near Devils Lake during the summer of 1887. He also opened one in the city of Grand Forks. These mounds had diameters between 35 and 90 feet, and were over five feet in height. From these mounds Montgomery removed more than 80 human skeletons. The article in the student magazine also noted that he took “wonderfully fine work in bone, shell, stone, copper, and clay.”

Sensibilities have changed since then. Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990. In 2022, Indian bones and artifacts were discovered at UND, scandalizing the faculty. A UND committee has worked with Indian tribes to return those remains.

Raiding Indian graves in the name of science was common among elite universities of the 19th century as part of their tradition of lecturing people about race. UND was no exception.

Dakota Datebook by Andrew Alexis Varvel

References:

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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