Cul­tural Ex­pro­pri­a­tion

Some Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties are be­ing de­nied their ar­chae­o­log­i­cal her­itage

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By John Lor­inc

In April 2009, an On­tario ar­chae­ol­o­gist sent a draft re­port to pro­vin­cial of­fi­cials, rec­om­mend­ing that a large col­lec­tion of Indige­nous ar­ti­facts and hu­man re­mains lan­guish­ing in a Sud­bury ware­house be stored in a cli­mate-con­trolled fa­cil­ity to en­sure proper preser­va­tion. The ma­te­rial, ex­ca­vated over many years, came from Man­i­toulin Is­land in Lake Huron, as well as other sites across north­ern On­tario.

Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials were pre­par­ing to ship the whole as­sem­blage to Thun­der Bay. But then, ac­cord­ing to Sophie Cor­biere, fi­nance of­fi­cer of the Ojibwe Cul­tural Foun­da­tion, an Anishin­abek Na­tion el­der heard about the planned move and asked the gov­ern­ment to trans­fer the items to the OCF (lo­cated in M’chigeeng First Na­tion, on Man­i­toulin Is­land) in­stead. In 2013, the OCF fi­nally took pos­ses­sion of hun­dreds of boxes of re­mains and ar­ti­facts un­der a tem­po­rary repa­tri­a­tion ar­range­ment, pend­ing the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of a per­ma­nent home. But when ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Anong Mig­wans Beam in­ven­to­ried the items, she dis­cov­ered that 123 ce­ramic ves­sels or frag­ments thereof, many cre­ated by Anishi­naabe artists liv­ing on the is­land, were miss­ing—they’d been shipped to Western Uni­ver­sity in 2009 for aca­demic study.

The episode re­veals much about the messy state of Indige­nous ar­chae­o­log­i­cal pol­icy — a do­main that has be­come more vis­i­ble since the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion re­leased its fi­nal re­port in 2015. “The TRC is clear about Indige­nous peo­ples manag­ing their own her­itage,” ob­serves Ali­cia Hawkins, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist at Lau­ren­tian Uni­ver­sity. “[Ar­chae­ol­ogy] is part of that story.” But nei­ther the cur­rent rules that cover ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ar­ti­facts and sites nor the re­sources presently avail­able to sup­port Indige­nous col­lec­tions in smaller com­mu­ni­ties are ad­e­quate.

Be­cause her­itage falls un­der pro­vin­cial ju­ris­dic­tion, laws and reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing ar­chae­ol­ogy vary greatly across Canada. They also re­main grounded in colo­nial as­sump­tions about the own­er­ship and treat­ment of ar­ti­facts. In New­found­land and Labrador, ar­chae­ol­o­gists must trans­fer their find­ings to a pub­lic repos­i­tory in St. John’s. In Que­bec, the rules about stew­ard­ship and own­er­ship vary de­pend­ing on whether the ar­ti­facts were un­earthed on pri­vate or Crown land. And in On­tario, ar­chae­ol­o­gists are legally ob­li­gated to pro­tect what­ever they ex­ca­vate, but there are few rules about what hap­pens next.

Gen­er­ally, pol­icy in On­tario sim­ply doesn’t re­quire pri­vate landown­ers to con­sult with local First Na­tions be­fore be­gin­ning work on a site — which means they can as­sess prop­er­ties with­out ben­e­fit­ing from the knowl­edge of local com­mu­ni­ties. “This is the ab­so­lute base­line and foun­da­tional de­fi­ciency in the sys­tem,” says Julie Kapyrka, a re­searcher who spe­cial­izes in First Na­tions ar­chae­ol­ogy.

Some cases do fol­low a dif­fer­ent tra­jec­tory, such as the ex­ten­sive ex­ca­va­tion of a 500-year-old clus­ter of ninety-eight Huron-wen­dat long­houses found on ade­vel­op­ment site north of Toronto in 2002. More re­cently, a Bri­tish Co­lum­bia prop­erty owner be­gan build­ing a large house on an is­land known to con­tain Coast Sal­ish burial cairns. The project was tech­ni­cally com­pli­ant with pro­vin­cial law (the de­sign avoided the cairns), but faced with protests, the BC gov­ern­ment ex­pro­pri­ated the land, which is now be­ing man­aged by a non-profit, in part­ner­ship with eight First Na­tions, with an eye to restor­ing the is­land’s cul­tural and eco­log­i­cal her­itage.

Repa­tri­a­tion ef­forts across Canada are lim­ited by the dearth of Indige­nous-owned fa­cil­i­ties with the nec­es­sary stor­age ca­pac­ity, cli­mate con­trols, and bud­get. “There is a great need for repos­i­to­ries on First Na­tions lands, in First Na­tions com­mu­ni­ties,” says Kapyrka, not­ing that na­tions aren’t al­lowed ac­cess to a gov­ern­ment data­base of sites with­out sign­ing a con­tract. “Why do First Na­tions need to en­ter into a con­tract to find out about where their own an­ces­tral sites are?”

Toronto ar­chae­ol­o­gist Ron Wil­liamson, an author­ity on south­ern On­tario Indige­nous sites, says thou­sands of boxes of ar­ti­facts, mostly Huron-wen­dat or from the Iro­quoian Neu­tral Con­fed­er­acy, lan­guish in limbo. He cites an in­fa­mous case in which an ar­chae­ol­o­gist died sud­denly and the boxes stored in his apart­ment were sent to a land­fill.

As a prof es­sion, ar­chae­ol­o­gists are an­i­mated by the no­tion that ar­ti­facts tell sto­ries that never make it into records such as cen­sus forms or tax rolls. Beam of­fers a spe­cific ex­am­ple: a ves­sel re­cov­ered from the Man­i­toulin ex­ca­va­tion pro­vided a mo­ment of val­i­da­tion for her fa­ther, the ce­ramic artist Carl Beam. “He was al­ways con­vinced there was an Anishi­naabe ce­ramic tra­di­tion,” she says. “But he was told there wasn’t.”

That story il­lus­trates why ar­chae­ol­ogy has long had a tense re­la­tion­ship with Indige­nous cul­tures. For gen­er­a­tions, Indige­nous ar­ti­facts were re­garded as keep­sakes to probe, ex­per­i­ment on, and sell. The col­lec­tions found in mod­ern mu­se­ums were built on colo­nial plun­der and later evolved to em­brace a nine­teenth-cen­tury sci­en­tific man­date that in­cluded the med­i­cal anal­y­sis of hu­man re­mains.

Con­tem­po­rary prac­ti­tion­ers have sought to make the pro­fes­sion more col­lab­o­ra­tive, says Wil­liamson, who has part­nered with First Na­tions groups on nu­mer­ous ex­ca­va­tions. But Kapyrka says the reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing pro­fes­sional ar­chae­ol­o­gists in On­tario don’t re­quire suf­fi­cient con­sul­ta­tion with Indige­nous groups. And Indige­nous ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites, she points out, ac­count for the vast ma­jor­ity of ex­ca­va­tions con­ducted across Canada.

Mount­ing pres­sure in the 1980s and 1990s from Indige­nous groups in the United States and Aus­tralia led to rules man­dat­ing the repa­tri­a­tion of hu­man re­mains in those coun­tries. Cana­dian leg­is­la­tors never passed such laws. In 1999, the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto em­barked on a four­teen-year process of repa­tri­at­ing the bones of more than 1,700 in­di­vid­u­als in its pos­ses­sion. But un­til re­cently, such agree­ments tended to be the ex­cep­tion, not the norm.

In the mean­time, the le­gal sta­tus of ar­ti­facts — which can serve as ev­i­dence in land claims ne­go­ti­a­tion — re­mains a long-stand­ing sore point. “First Na­tions do not even have own­er­ship rights over their own an­ces­tors’ ma­te­rial cul­ture,” says Kapyrka, point­ing out that some ar­ti­facts are seen to be spir­i­tu­ally alive and de­serv­ing of an en­tirely dif­fer­ent treat­ment.

In many cases, Indige­nous ar­ti­facts also as­sert pow­er­ful cul­tural and emo­tional con­nec­tions be­tween past and present, coun­ter­ing the cul­tural oblit­er­a­tion in­flicted by res­i­den­tial-school poli­cies. Memo­rial Uni­ver­sity ar­chae­ol­o­gist Lisa Rankin has been work­ing with of­fi­cials and res­i­dents of Nu­natsi­avut, the self-gov­ern­ing Inuit re­gion of north­ern Labrador, on digs in Hope­dale, called Agvi­tuk in Inut­ti­tut. There, Rankin and a team of stu­dents and res­i­dents have ex­ca­vated cen­turies-old set­tle­ments, find­ing tools, food re­mains, build­ing ma­te­ri­als, and a loonie-sized soap­stone fig­urine of a man. She says the res­i­dents have been drawn to the project be­cause it es­tab­lishes a link to their past. “Ex­ca­vat­ing in houses where their great-great-grand­par­ents may have lived gives them a con­nec­tion to their his­tory.”

The lack of local fa­cil­i­ties, how­ever, means they have to ship ev­ery­thing they find to The Rooms mu­seum and ar­chives in St. John’s, at least un­til Nu­natsi­avut opens its own repos­i­tory or mu­seum to house such items. As Rankin says, for the com­mu­nity “not hav­ing ac­cess to that stuff is a slap in the face.”

As many non-indige­nous Cana­di­ans take up Se­na­tor Mur­ray Sin­clair’s call for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and greater ap­pre­ci­a­tion of Indige­nous her­itage, in­sti­tu­tions in­clud­ing the Royal On­tario Mu­seum and the Cana­dian Mu­seum of His­tory have bol­stered their pro­gram­ming with ev­ery­thing from con­tem­po­rary art to ar­ti­facts from ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites.

Anong Mig­wans Beam finds her­self at the other end of that equa­tion, aware that huge quan­ti­ties of Indige­nous ar­ti­facts pour into these cul­tural pow­er­houses, which are cherry-pick­ing the most in­ter­est­ing ob­jects to put on dis­play. Beam cred­its these in­sti­tu­tions for reimag­in­ing their Indige­nous col­lec­tions, and mount­ing ex­hi­bi­tions such as the re­cent Anishi­naabeg Art and Power at the ROM. How­ever, Beam ob­serves, “for the Anishi­naabe, these ob­jects have spirit and have an en­ergy . . . It’s re­ally help­ful to have [them] shown closer to home, where a lot of peo­ple who are di­rectly re­lated to those ob­jects and tra­di­tions can ben­e­fit from see­ing them.”

A pol­ished bird stone, used as a weight for an at­latl or as a throw­ing board for darts; ca. 800 BCE, north­west­ern On­tario.

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