Indigenous experts call for return of countless treasured belongings held in museums

Indigenous experts call for return of countless treasured belongings held in museums

It’s common for museums to display only fractions of their collections, Neel said.

Countless treasured Indigenous cultural objects and ancestral remains are held by museums in Canada and across the world, and local communities and human rights experts say it’s time they are returned according to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“All of the things that would have been interwoven prior to contact and just part of everyday life were torn apart and cast in a thousand directions,” says Lou-ann Neel, a Kwakwaka’wakw artist and repatriation specialist at the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria.

A blanket created by Neel’s grandmother is held at that museum, she added.

“On the one hand (it’s) really exciting to find these things, but it still breaks your heart to realize that we’ve had probably five or six generations that have been without,” she said, noting that repatriation is crucial to healing and fostering people’s sense of identity.

ALSO READ: Recognition of title rights ‘still a struggle’ for First Nation after court win

It’s common for museums to display fractions of their collections, Neel said, and many treasures won’t ever see the light of day.

“What’s the point in that?” she asked. “Especially when people can grow and thrive and celebrate and give expression to their living cultures now.”

Neel is among a group of international experts and United Nations officials who gathered for a two-day seminar focused on the repatriation of artifacts and ancestral remains at the University of British Columbia this week.

In particular, the seminar explored how repatriation could work under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which asserts the rights of Indigenous Peoples to practice their cultural and spiritual traditions, and to control their ceremonial items and ancestral remains.

It also recognizes that governments should help facilitate repatriation and provide restitution in consultation with Indigenous communities.

The B.C. government passed legislation in November to facilitate the implementation of the declaration in the province.

Vince Collison has been working to repatriate treasures and ancestral remains since the late 1980s as a member of the Haida Gwaii repatriation committee.

“The challenge I want to give to every one of those museums is ‘You thought well enough of us to collect us. Think well enough to help send some things back to a community that really needs it more than you do,’ ” said Collison, who also attended the seminar.

“Those things mean way more to us than anybody else in the world,” he said, adding that Haida language and context for each stolen treasure was stripped away and repatriation involves the restoration of their rightful meaning.

The Royal B.C. Museum held more than 1,400 ancestors and about half of those have returned home since 2016, said Neel. It still holds about 15,000 treasured objects and artworks.

The remains of about 500 Haida ancestors have also been repatriated over the last 20 years, said Collison.

The Royal B.C. Museum changed its policies last year and will no longer collect or study ancestral remains. Anything it acquired under duress and anything acquired between 1885 and 1951, when the Canadian government enforced the potlatch ban, would also be eligible for repatriation. The museum does not collect items that lack provenance, or paperwork, indicating their origins, Neel added.

In partnership with the Haida Gwaii Museum, the Royal B.C. Museum also published an Indigenous repatriation handbook that serves as a reference for museums and Indigenous communities in B.C. last year.

It drew international attention said Neel, though some museums remain “drenched in the colonial mindset” that Indigenous Peoples don’t know how to take care of their own possessions.

Indeed, the most frequently asked question Neel hears is whether a community would be required to build a museum in order to preserve repatriated items.

“For the Royal B.C. Museum the answer is, it’s none of our business. These are your cultural treasures,” she said, adding that communities often want to build appropriate local facilities.

Royal B.C. Museum policies preclude the repatriation of treasures and ancestors into the care of an individual. Rather, they must be returned to an entity, such as a band council or a cultural centre, said Neel.

Repatriation is also costly, Neel and Collison said, and the onus is mostly on communities to come up with the necessary funding.

National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations told the seminar he believes the federal and provincial governments are obligated to help identify the resources communities will need to make repatriation a reality.

Once treasures and ancestors are returned, Neel said she believes in the potential for museums to facilitate meaningful cross-cultural experiences.

The museum of the future will be more interactive and reflective of the people and land around it, she said, suggesting there could be opportunities to meet people first hand, rather than peering at poorly labelled artifacts through glass.

Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Indigenous

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

FILE - In this April 19, 2021, file photo, Keidy Ventura, 17, receives her first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in West New York, N.J. States across the country are dramatically scaling back their COVID-19 vaccine orders as interest in the shots wanes, putting the goal of herd immunity further out of reach. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
5 more deaths, 131 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health over the weekend

Those 18-years and older in high-transmission neighbourhoods can register for the vaccine

Rotary Club of Salmon Arm president Norm Brown talks about the work the city’s Rotary Clubs do for the community during a Rotary 75th Anniversary event at the Blackburn Park picnic shelter on Saturday, May 8, 2021. (Lachlan Labere-Salmon Arm Observer)
Salmon Arm Rotarians mark 75th anniversary

Flags placed around Blackburn Park picnic shelter for video shoot

RCMP (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
High-risk takedown on Highway 1 following Anglemont shooting

Upon further investigation, the vehicle and its occupants were not associated with the shooting

Police watchdog find Salmon Arm RCMP have no involvement in head-on collision. (File photo)
Police watchdog finds Salmon Arm RCMP not involved in Highway 1 crash

Woman seriously injured on April 22 after head-on collision

A bullet hole is seen in the windshield of an RCMP vehicle approximately 4 km from Vancouver International Airport after a one person was killed during a shooting outside the international departures terminal at the airport, in Richmond, B.C., Sunday, May 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Homicide team IDs man in fatal YVR shooting as police grapple with spate of gang violence

Man, 20, charged in separate fatal shooting Burnaby over the weekend

RCMP are searching for Philip Toner, who is a ‘person of interest’ in the investigation of a suspicious death in Kootenay National Park last week. Photo courtesy BC RCMP.
RCMP identify ‘person of interest’ in Kootenay National Park suspicious death

Police are looking for Philip Toner, who was known to a woman found dead near Radium last week

Vancouver Canucks goaltender Thatcher Demko (35) makes a save on Winnipeg Jets’ Nate Thompson (11) during second period NHL action in Winnipeg, Monday, May 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade
Vancouver Canucks see NHL playoff hopes dashed despite 3-1 win over Winnipeg

Montreal Canadiens earn final North Division post-season spot

The southern mountain caribou, an iconic species for the Splatsin First Nation, is threatened with extinction, much to the dismay of the First Nation. (Province of B.C. photo)
Okanagan First Nation band concerned over dwindling caribou herd

Southern mountain caribou at risk of extinction, much to dismay of Splatsin First Nation near Enderby

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
UPDATE: Winfield road open following police, coroner investigation

Pelmewash Parkway closure near Highway 97 connection

Kelowna resident Sally Wallick helped rescue a kayaker in distress a week and a half ago. (Sally Wallick/Contributed)
VIDEO: Kelowna woman rescues capsized kayaker in Okanagan Lake

Sally Wallick is asking people to be prepared for the cold water and unpredictable winds

The B.C. legislature went from 85 seats to 87 before the 2017 election, causing a reorganization with curved rows and new desks squeezed in at the back. The next electoral boundary review could see another six seats added. (Black Press files)
B.C. election law could add six seats, remove rural protection

North, Kootenays could lose seats as cities gain more

The Independent Investigations Office of B.C. is investigating the shooting of an Indigenous woman in the Ucluelet First Nation community of Hitacu. (Black Press Media file photo)
B.C. First Nation wants ‘massive change’ after its 3rd police shooting in less than a year

Nuu-chah-nulth woman recovering from gunshot wounds in weekend incident near Ucluelet

Nurse Gurinder Rai, left, administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Maria Yule at a Fraser Health drive-thru vaccination site, in Coquitlam, B.C., on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. The site is open for vaccinations 11 hours per day to those who have pre-booked an appointment. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
COVID vaccine bookings to open for adults 40+, or 18+ in hotspots, across B.C.

Only people who have registered will get their alert to book

Most Read