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The Stories The Law Lets Us Tell Ourselves


photo credit: Canadian Museums Association, Visual Notes from a Learning Circle with Membertou, NS community

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,


Museums are fascinating places. Influential places. Powerful places. By setting tangible pieces of history (artifacts, photographs, models) against an accessible narrative of that history, museums can tell us an exceptionally persuasive story. Without due care being taken to allude to the other perspectives on history, museums, by holding sacred objects in their collections, are also perpetuating colonialism and hampering efforts towards reconciliation and cultural revitalization.


In Alberta during the 1990s, the Blackfoot Nations, the Glenbow Museum and the Government of Alberta began negotiations to repatriate, from the museum back to the First Nations, more than 200 ceremonial objects including ceremonial pipes, headdresses and ceremonial bundles.[1] It was a process that took over a decade to negotiate. After the repatriation, the Legislature was required to develop a law to confirm that repatriation was legal, because museum collections are the property of the people of Alberta. The law had to allow stolen objects to be returned to their rightful owners. The First Nations Sacred and Ceremonial Object Repatriation Act (FNSCORA), confirmed the Blackfoot Agreements, laid the foundation for future agreements, and became law in 2002. [2]


The section of the Act that created the general right to apply for repatriation, however, was not proclaimed and did not come into force until 2016. [3] According to the Royal Alberta Museum, the fact that the law was in limbo did not stop repatriation.[4] But it cannot be coincidence that the Blackfoot Nations, which were the only Nations specifically identified in the legislation and regulation, remain the only ones with a formalized process for repatriation of ceremonial objects. [5]


Before repatriation was formalized, objects were “loaned” back to communities - with a representative of the Glenbow Museum visiting the communities every year to update the loan form. [6]


Blackfoot ceremonial bundles are among the most common objects in museum collections. Frank Weasel Head, one of the signatories to the Glenbow repatriation agreement described his memory of ceremonial bundles the likes of which were repatriated: “I always saw a bundle being cared for by my mom and dad," he said. "They looked after it as they looked after us. They taught us by it, we learned by it, we learned respect, we learned responsibility to help care for it, but that was lost…” [7]


Imagine having something sacred taken from you, held hostage for decades, and then ‘returned’ to you with strict conditions that require you to sign a statement that essentially says ‘this sacred object does not belong to you, it belongs to me, and I am letting you borrow it, for now.’


Still today, “sensitive” objects in the Royal Alberta Museum (RAM)’s collection are held with special care, and with special access rights. The RAM reports that their staff “only minimally handle ancestral belongings” and guided by elders, knowledge keepers and ceremonialists, have special protocols in place for anyone seeking to visit these objects. [8]


The TRC Call to Action 67 calls on the Federal Government to fund a review of Canadian museum policies and their alignment with UNDRIP, which establishes an obligation to repatriate ceremonial objects and human remains.[9] Last year, ReconciliACTION gave the government a C+ on this Call to Action, noting that a report was forthcoming from the Canadian Museums Association in the Fall of 2021. That report has been delayed until the Fall of 2022. [10]


Reviewing policies is all well and good, and going about this important work in a good, respectful and cooperative way is essential, but as always, funding remains a major concern. The actual costs of repatriation are significant, and without dedicated financial support from governments and museums, Nations seeking to find their stolen objects, re-establish their connection to them and bring them home, rely on their own funds and resources. [11]


Funding aside, important steps are being taken in the right direction, but we at ReconciliACTION have to ask – why are we letting this take so long? And, how much damage is being perpetuated and furthered by colonial institutions like museums maintaining possession and exercising control over that which is not theirs? Have we really come so far from the days of loaning sacred objects back to their keepers?


Until next time,


Team ReconciliACTION


p.s. - if you’re a podcast listener, and interested in the topic of repatriation from museum collections, may we recommend Stuff the British Stole,a joint production between the CBC and the ABC.


 

[1] Bruce Weir, "Glenbow returns sacred objects" , Alberta Sweetgrass (2000, Volume 7, Issue 3), archived online: <ammsa.com/publications/alberta-sweetgrass/glenbow-returns-sacred-objects>.


[2] First Nations Sacred Ceremonial Objects Repatriation Act, RSA 2000, c F-14.


[3] Section 2 proclaimed in force December 13, 2016, see CanLII.


[4] Otiena Ellwand, "Alberta government to expand policy around return of sacred items to Indigenous communities", Edmonton Journal (27 May 2016), archived online: <web.archive.org/web/20160527225310/http://edmontonjournal.com/news/local-news/alberta-government-to-expand-policy-around-return-of-sacred-items-to-indigenous-communities>.

[5]Government of Alberta, "Guidelines for Applications to Repatriate First Nations Sacred Ceremonial Objects", online (pdf): Royal Alberta Museum <royalalbertamuseum.ca/sites/default/files/2021-06/Application%20Form-%20FNSCORA%20repatriation%2020200403.pdf>.


[6] Weir, supra note 1.


[7] Ibid.


[8]"Community Engagement", online: Royal Alberta Museum <royalalbertamuseum.ca/collections/cultural-studies/indigenous-studies/community-engagement>.


[9] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (Ottawa, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015) at 332.


[10] "Reconciliation Program", online: Canadian Museums Association <museums.ca/site/aboutthecma/reconciliationprogram>.


[11] Jisgang Nika Collison, Sdaahl K’awaas Lucy Bell & Lou-ann Neel, "Indigenous Repatriation Handbook" (2019) at 19, online (pdf): <royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/sites/default/files/indigenous_repatriation_handbook_rbcm_2019.pdf>.


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