16,500 That’s how many Indian and Inuit artifacts and human remains are housed in museums across Britain. Native communities would like them back
Locked away in museums across Britain are totem poles, kayaks, wampum belts, arrowheads, masks, pipes and scores of other items that were once the property of Canada’s natives.
The objects, including human remains of at least 31 Indians and Inuit and grave goods, were all either traded or bought or stolen from native communities over the past 400 years. Most of the artifacts are no longer even on public display in the museums.
Even British curators have described the collections as full of “hidden treasures” for Canadian native communities.
A four-month investigation by the Star has retrieved detailed lists of more than 16,500 items held in just 23 national and local museum collections in the U.K.
It’s the first time such lists have been compiled for the wider public, outside of researchers and individual communities who have had piecemeal contact with foreign institutions. Many sacred ceremonial antiquities are viewed as critical to healing in today’s Indian and Inuit communities. Increasingly, Canada’s natives are pressing to have the objects repatriated, and their return has become a key point in ongoing treaty negotiations with the federal and provincial governments.
But there is no legal obligation for U.K. museums to deal with indigenous cultures around the world. In fact, British law prohibits the British Museum in London from returning some of the 2,000 artifacts it holds that were made before 1850, unless there is a duplicate. (However, another law permits the return of human remains.)
What happens now will define the future of U.K. collections and the Canadian communities they purport to display. One type of artifact, which played a central role in the Caledonia land dispute this spring, typifies the importance natives place on their antiquities. Made of hemp cord and shell, and unfurled at the negotiations aimed at resolving the dispute, wampum belts are still being used as guiding principles for the Six Nations of the Grand River and reflect how they see their relationship with the rest of Canada. The Two Rows Wampum Belt of the Six Nations lays out two parallel paths, of the natives and the “white man,” in this case, originally the Dutch in the 1600s, then the English and later the French. Both paths are equal but distinct — each has its sets of laws and neither interferes with each, living in peaceful coexistence.
“It’s a recording, and we have to have the capacity to understand what it’s all about, other-
wise it’s just a pretty thing,” says Keith Jamieson, who does historical research, particularly with the Woodland Cultural Centre of the Six Nations, and also teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University. “And when we no longer have them, we can’t interpret them.” The Two Rows is just one wampum belt of about 40 the Six Nations band has. Jamieson says there are at least 450 others somewhere in the world.
“I have a huge collection of 33 LPs and brought one to the class and said: ‘ Look at this Santana album,’ ” Jamieson says. “I pulled out the LP and said: ‘It looks pretty bland and doesn’t mean anything. But put it on a record player and all of a sudden you get all this fabulous music. That’s what a wampum belt is.”
The belts are perhaps one of the best examples of the complexities surrounding indigenous artifacts in foreign institutions and whether they should be returned. While some are considered sacred, others are diplomatic, and copies were made for each party in treaty talks. To repatriate one held in the U.K. might undo those relations established hundreds of years ago. “When wampum belts have come back to us through repatriation, then the community almost revitalizes,” Jamieson says. “In Caledonia, there has been a lack of respect for those treaties and agreements we have come to. “The wider community would benefit tremendously from learning about these objects — we would have far less trouble relating to the world if they understood us.”
On Canada’s West Coast, the full significance of native artifacts and the depth of feeling surrounding the return of human remains has touched every corner of some communities. Andy Wilson stepped down as co-chairman of the Haida Repatriation Society last June after 10 years of working to bring the remains of ancestors back to their home in the Queen Charlotte Islands. The Haida have perhaps been the most proactive peoples in Canada when it comes to reclaiming human remains, first from museums in British Columbia and the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, and then in the U.S.
The process has also involved everyone in the community, from the preparation of bentwood boxes to hold the remains, to button blankets made by elementary schoolchildren to wrap around their ancestors.
“When we started, we didn’t know what repatriation was, let alone how to say it or spell it,” says the 53-year-old Wilson from his home in Skidegate, B.C. “None of us knew how to make bentwood boxes. I didn’t realize I would spend 10 years making more than 500 of them.”
The last decade has also involved a great deal of fundraising, from auctions to seafood dinners, to cover the costs of travelling to museums around North America and bringing hundreds of boxes back.
Visitors to the Queen Charlotte Islands, or what the natives call Haida Gwaii, have been asked to show their support for the community’s ongoing battle for the return of a Haida skull from the British Museum in London.
Wilson continues: “People are still appalled at how human remains and objects came to be in museums around the world. They understand it is important to bring them home and not place blame on anybody but do the right thing . . . to pay respect to our ancestors.
“If you take a percentage, only 0.001 per cent was sold to collectors. After smallpox wiped out 95 per cent of our people, people just came here in droves because they knew they could take things. Trading and selling was done by people who stole them. The laws at the time didn’t protect us. But even stealing was still against the law in the U.K.”
Laura Peers grew up in Uxbridge north of Toronto and defined her early career working directly with Indian communities in Canada. Since 1998, the 43-year-old has been curator of the Americas collections at Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.
The Victorian building and its storerooms house one of the largest single collections of Canadian artifacts — about 3,200 items, from human remains to 400-year-old model canoes.
But Peers suggests that few items in the museum were stolen from natives.
“A lot was made for sale or given as gifts. A very small number of items are questionable. It’s things taken illegally or by coercion or human remains, which quite often fell into that category. “Some were raided from cemeteries at night, or against the specific wishes of aboriginal peoples, so they’re laden with difficult episodes.”
But Peers understands that aboriginal peoples need the artifacts returned so they can take back “control over their lives.
“If you as a people have been through a period when you could not control what happened to your children, nor what happened to your beloved dead, then one of the ways you symbolically take charge of your lives is literally taking repossession of your human remains and say, ‘That period of our history is done.’ ” Some of the human remains may be impossible to ever connect with the originating community. For example, one bone in Oxford is listed as: “U.S.A? Canada? Australia?”
About a third of the items are arrowheads, harpoons and other such tools. Another large percentage is clothing, ranging from ceremonial outfits and children’s moccasins more than 100 hundred years old, to items bought by tourists over the past decade.
Peers says U.K. museums have a great deal of work to do on the Canadian items, but they need the resources and help of indigenous communities.
“I’m the first North American historian working in the Pitt Rivers Museum in 50 years, and the last person refused to set foot in North America,” she says. “North America is far down the list of importance in terms of overall ethnographic material in U.K. collections.
“First Nations don’t want to take someone else’s remains home — they want the research to be done and be absolutely sure. I have been astonished by the degree that First Nations peoples are willing to help institutions to research.”
Garry Courchene, director of the Sagkeeng Cultural Centre on the Sagkeeng First Nation reserve in Fort Alexander, Man., says he’s just learned that there is a human skull identified as Ojibwa hidden in a crate somewhere in the United Kingdom. He feels the hand of the Creator at work.
“It’s up there that’s doing that. They want to come back,” he says. “Something’s coming.”
Courchene says “stolen” is too strong a word to use. “We don’t want to look at it that way. These artifacts were appropriated, just like our land. I don’t like to blame. My aim is just to get them back.”
Courchene, 51, says the objects might have been made in the past, and exist in the present in foreign museums, but are timeless and important to the future of natives.
“Those artifacts are alive and kicking and just waiting to come home,” he says. “The spirit has not been dead in them, so they have to be taken care of. We can go into ceremony to use spiritual guidance to find out where the objects come from.”
Courchene’s approach points out the very different views on how to determine an object’s history: spirituality or research. Where U.K. museums and Canadian communities go from here will be framed in that debate.
But there appears to be no agreement on the next step toward building new relationships between British museums and Canadian communities.
Francis Frank, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council in Port Alberni, B.C., puts the responsibility squarely on the federal government. “The Canadian government should approach U.K. museums to repatriate these objects,” he says. “Once we have been able to identify objects as Nuu-chahnulth, the federal government must initiate steps with the British government, or anywhere else in the world.
“Although there are some human remains from our communities, we know there’s greater abundance of artifacts. They were stolen — it was legalized theft at the time. Our goal in treaty negotiations is to have them back.”
A few hours’ journey away, at the Sto:lo Research and Re- source Management Centre in Chilliwack, B.C., David Schaepe says native communities must be ready to enter a complex relationship with museums.
“You can’t start to bring back and not know what to do with them,” says Schaepe, 38, the centre’s manager and senior archaeologist. “What’s going to happen with the objects, with human remains? Where will they be put?
“We have to get a cultural centre built so the Sto:lo can use the objects and educate others and have a better relationship between themselves and other communities.
“It’s a detailed and time-consuming process finding out where those things are and dealing with each object individually. What do you search under? What cultural names? Fraser River? Sto: lo?
“And it’s not just objects — it’s knowledge that’s bound up in things, such as songs, names, photographs and things that are covered under intellectual property.”
Jamieson at the Six Nations reserve says: “A lot of museums in Europe are very afraid to open their stuff up to us because they’re scared of the repatriation issue. But we have to respect their laws — the Two Row says we can’t interfere with your process because we expect you to not interfere with ours.”
Even if artifacts aren’t returned, there remains the issue of how they are displayed, if at all.
Peers shows off some Canadian items in glass cases set up more than 100 years ago, under the watchful eyes of a totem pole. The Haida pole was removed from outside Star House in Old Masset, B.C., after the people who raised it died. It was installed in the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1901 and bolted to a pillar.
Nearby are what are likely the most popular display cases for school tours: shrunken heads from the South Pacific and two scalps from Canada.
“One of my first goals was to haul these scalps off display,” Peers says. “These are considered human remains and would not be displayed in Canada any more. But if we take them off display, it’s a form of censorship in the sense that Pitt Rivers is a museum of British colonial history as much as anything else.
As for other objects in foreign museums, natives in Canada want them celebrated in the light, not hidden in the dark. “We told the Museum of Natural History in New York, ‘Get our objects out of the dark,’ ” says Wilson in Haida Gwaii, B.C. “You have got to stop portraying our people as something dead and gone. It makes it look like we are part of the past, but our objects are alive with colour and light and magic. Light it up in here, give it life.”
If objects need to be returned to Canada, how will British students and the public learn about indigenous cultures? Can there be bridges over the gaps of mending historical wrongs but educating future generations on both sides of the Atlantic?
“You get a little shiver up your spine when you handle them,” says Jenny Allan, a thirdyear University of Glasgow student in history of art and English literature. The 21-year-old worked this summer on objects collected on Captain James Cook’s voyages up Canada’s West Coast.
“I used to look at Captain Cook objects on class trips — they make a huge impact,” she says. “They’re very striking objects. And this stuff has made more of an impact because I have been able to touch them. It’s impossible not to get a huge sense of the people in this.”
But Wilson would rather Allan and others come to Haida Gwaii to learn about the objects currently held in museums around the world.
“It’s like me learning about the U.K. and not going to the U.K. I didn’t know why I was learning Shakespeare in school, but when I went to London, I got a better understanding of why he wrote the way he did.
"We travel all over the world to learn about other cultures, and what makes sense is to have our stuff and people come here to learn about us. It’s abstract until you come here and understand why the Haida were so strong and powerful, and their culture became so advanced.
“If anybody went to another culture and took their most sacred objects, people would be appalled, especially in the U.K. That’s what they’re doing to us. People just don’t get that.” Canadian journalist Tristan Stewart-Robertson is a senior reporter at the Greenock Telegraph in Scotland. He can be reached at email@example.com.