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It’s a long, slow process to return the bones and skulls once collected by museums around the world back to the places in Canada where they were found, rife with issues ranging from who covers the cost to finding burial sites

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Items on display from the communities of the Plains at the Royal Ontario Museums in the Daphne Cockwell Gallery dedicated to First Peoples art and culture.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Sometime soon, very soon, Nonosabasut and Demasduit will finally return home. The remains of the Beothuk couple who died 200 years ago will be released by the National Museum of Scotland, where they have long mouldered, and travel across the Atlantic to be received by the Indigenous people of Newfoundland and Labrador. Theirs is the most recent example of the long, slow process by which the bones and skulls once collected by museums around the world are making their way back to the places in Canada where they were found.

After protracted negotiations, complicated by the lack of anyone who can make a claim to be a direct ancestor of the Beothuk, Scotland will return the remains to the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., which in turn will transfer them to The Rooms museum in St. John’s for safekeeping. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador has yet to decide on a final resting place, but it seems improbable that it will be another museum. All the movement in Canada is in the opposite direction, as museums labour to return remains to Indigenous communities.

“You can’t own human remains. Keeping these things is not appropriate,” says Jack Lohman, CEO of the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria and a leading advocate of repatriating remains. “You can’t put them on display to the public. What are you doing with them? We need to play the role of a transition station.”

The Beothuk have disappeared, wiped out by murder and disease by the early 19th century, but it was a Mi’kmaq elder who led the campaign to get Nonosabasut and Demasduit returned. Since 2011, Mi’sel Joe, chief of the Miawpukek First Nation at Conne River, Nfld., has been lobbying and petitioning, backed by other Indigenous groups in the province. Finally, after a formal request from the federal government, the Scottish museum agreed in January that it would return the remains, which consist of two skulls, but not the goods that were buried with them. So far, no date for the transfer has been set, nor an interment site agreed upon.

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A painting of Demasduit (Mary March), who was kidnapped by Europeans in 1819 and died of tuberculosis the following year.Supplied

“I can’t see them going on display,” Joe said. “That’s not the point. … There is no Beothuk First Nation community, but once they are back in Newfoundland, the government and the First Nations will decide.”

Demasduit was kidnapped by Europeans in 1819 and died of tuberculosis the following year; her husband, Nonosabasut, was killed trying to rescue her. Her body was placed in a burial hut beside his, but both graves were later disturbed by the explorer William Cormack, who was trying to make contact with the disappearing Beothuk and then shipped the remains to Scotland for study. Demasduit’s niece Shanawdithit, who died in 1829, is considered the last Beothuk. Still, some dispute the notion that the Beothuk can be called “extinct” and believe DNA testing will eventually uncover descendants among other Indigenous groups.

“There’s enough Beothuk blood around in Newfoundland,” Joe said.

Involving a foreign museum and no direct claimant, the Beothuk repatriation is a particularly twisting example of the work required if Indigenous people, museums and governments are to undo the decades of colonial treasure hunting and voracious archeological digging that deposited human bones in institutions across Canada and abroad. From Victorian collectors who considered a skull an exotic bibelot to 20th-century archeologists who uncovered the evidence of human habitation in North America dating back thousands of years, there is nothing new about gathering up old bones. What is new, however, is that museums and universities have changed their attitudes and no longer want to keep the hoard.

Repatriations began as early as the 1980s, but there are thousands of remains still to be returned. The Royal BC Museum holds the remains of 700 individuals, mainly gathered in British Columbia, but Lohman says it no longer considers them part of its collection and wants to return them all.

In Toronto, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) estimates it has 350 remains belonging to an undetermined number of individuals and also wants them returned to the Ontario communities where they were dug up. Concerned for the privacy of such communities, the Canadian Museum of History will not say how many remains it still holds, but notes most are from Nunavut.

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J'net Ayayqwayaksheelth, Indigenous outreach and learning coordinator at the Royal Ontario Museum, points to a shield from the Northwest Coast Indigenous Peoples during a tour of the Daphne Cockwell Gallery dedicated to First Peoples art and culture in Toronto.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Medical schools and archeology departments also have bones: For example, the archeology lab at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., still has 650 entries for human remains on its database. (Because burial sites may be disturbed by animals or shifting soil, archeologists can’t always say how many individuals a collection of bones represents.)

Since 2011, the university has returned 250 individuals to several West Coast First Nations and is actively working on more repatriations.

“Archeology has undergone a transformation in the last 30 years: One of the realizations that archeologists have come to is that how we treat human remains must respect the belief of the descendants of these people,” said Jonathan Driver, a professor of archeology at Simon Fraser.

And the remains are not only located in Canada: The Haida, who began work on repatriation in the 1990s, have brought home ancestors from the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Field Museum in Chicago.

Many museums in Canada and abroad now have policies limiting the display of human remains and most are open to repatriation, recognizing that treating bones gathered from Indigenous sites as either curiosities or educational material is offensive to contemporary First Nations.

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Items from the communities of the Plains at the Daphne Cockwell Gallery dedicated to First Peoples art and culture in Toronto.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

“For Indigenous people, we look at people who have passed not in terms of age – historic or prehistoric. We see them as ancestors, whether it’s 100 years or 1,000,” said Karen Aird, president of the Indigenous Heritage Circle in British Columbia. So, the return of ancient remains may be as emotional as any contemporary funeral.

“To bring them home and put them to rest, it feels really good, like a weight has been lifted off you,” said Dianne Hinkley, land research director for B.C.’s Cowichan Tribes. She worked to repatriate Cowichan remains from a Californian museum in 2017, finally burying four skulls on Wallace Island, a provincial park in B.C.'s Gulf Islands.

Increasingly, museums are initiating repatriation themselves, often involving Indigenous curators in the task. At the Royal BC Museum, Lucy Bell, head of indigenous collections and repatriation, began the process by repackaging what was there.

“I have seen human beings stuffed into plastic bags, stapled, taped and numbered. I have seen them treated with such disrespect. Getting my team ready for repatriation meant treating them as human beings, not archeological specimens,” she said. It took staff a week to unwrap the plastic packaging, shroud the bones in cotton fabric and deck them with cedar boughs.

Because of the vast number of remains, the variety of institutions and their differing policies, Lohman believes Canada needs a registry to track them, as well as an agreement with Parks Canada to free up sites for reburials. A private member’s bill that is now in the Senate would establish protocols for the repatriation of cultural objects and human remains, but is going to die on the order paper when a federal election is called this fall. Indigenous officials involved in the repatriation movement call the bill a good first step but say that money needs to be attached.

“It is really time for the federal government to step forward and say, yes, this is important and we are going to put resources behind it. In terms of reconciliation, it needs to happen. They need to put dollars in place, so it’s not just gestures,” said Sarah Pash, chair of the Cree School Board in Quebec and a board member of the Canadian Museums Association.

The reality is that repatriation costs money: The Haida spent more than $1-million bringing home their 500 ancestors. Expenses include researching the locations of remains, negotiating with institutions, getting permits for reburial, covering the travel costs of those who accompany remains and paying the expenses of a traditional funeral.

“It’s very much like today; people escort the dead home,” said Nika Collison, executive director of the Haida Gwaii Museum, explaining that the Haida have also had to develop ceremonies for an unprecedented event, retrieving ancestors from museum store rooms.

She and Bell helped prepare a handbook published by the Royal BC Museum describing the process, explaining how communities need to do their research before requesting ancestral remains and to decide what will be done when they are returned. (To reproduce the dead person’s original treatment, communities usually bury remains in the ground at a site as close as possible to the place they were found.)

Ironically, museums’ sensitivity can make research harder because remains are not included in online catalogues. Meanwhile, museums are cautious about enumerating or dating remains because elders don’t want to see them further disturbed. Nonetheless, museum directors foresee a day when they are no longer the custodians of boxes of bones.

“It’s not a faint hope that we will have no more remains of Indigenous people in the museum,” said Mark Engstrom, the ROM’s deputy director of collections and research. That museum is currently working with the Rainy River First Nation in Northern Ontario to return remains taken from burial mounds that were excavated in the 1950s and 1960s.

Underneath all the paperwork is not only the universal concept that dead bodies must be treated with due respect but also deeply felt connections to the bodies in question, even if they are hundreds of years old.

“As a Haida, I owe my existence to these people I repatriated,” Bell said. “My Haida ancestors were almost wiped out, but I am here because of them. I owe them my respect. For me, it’s personal.”

If Egypt displays mummies, should Canadian museums?

On a busy Sunday at the Royal Ontario Museum, it’s not hard to spot the chief attraction in the Egyptian galleries. Visitors gravitate toward the display of an open mummy case where both the decorated sarcophagus and the body of an ancient Egyptian man can be seen. Children occasionally express disgust; one adult man is visibly shaken and turns away, but most people, safely separated from this body by vast stretches of both cultural difference and historic time, look closer. One woman uses her phone to illuminate it for her family: Mummification has preserved hair, skin and teeth.

Do we owe this man named Antjau the same respect we might pay the bodies of our great-grandparents? That is a subject of debate in the museum world as institutions ask themselves whether it is acceptable to put human remains on display.

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The mummy of Antjau is displayed in the 'Galleries of Africa: Egypt' at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

“Mummies are people, not a spectacle,” said Lucy Bell, who oversees the Indigenous collections at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria. “The museum world is changing; I definitely hear more discussions.”

In North America, those discussions have mainly dealt with the ancestral remains of Indigenous people. Canadian museums have long stopped displaying skulls and skeletons excavated by local archeologists; the ROM, for example, has a policy of never displaying Indigenous remains and is busy repatriating them to the communities where they were found.

“Right now, North America is focused on Indigenous ancestors because there is so much more work to be done on reconciliation,” said Lia Tarle, an archeology PhD student at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., who is researching attitudes to the display of remains. “A lot of museums will have policies about the repatriation of Indigenous remains but not about the treatment of other remains.”

So, what are sometimes referred to as “uncontested remains,” are still shown. The ROM takes its lead from interested communities: Modern Egypt has never been shy about displaying mummies and is currently building the lavish new Grand Egyptian Museum to rehouse its most famous antiquities.

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Visitors gravitate toward the display of the mummy of Antjau displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

“There are distinctions between uncontested remains and remains that are culturally sensitive. Our own practice is that if objects are culturally sensitive or we don’t know, we don’t show them,” said Mark Engstrom, the ROM’s deputy director of collections and research. He hopes to mount a display that would raise the issues with the public.

In Britain, where the debate is more than a decade old, sensitivity already extends to all human remains. In 2004, the British government passed the Human Tissue Act regulating the treatment of any remains less than 100 years old, but also triggering a conversation about the rights of the ancient dead.

Many British museums began giving their mummies some privacy. For example, the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery darkens the display of an early Egyptian burial box containing a body curled in a fetal position, leaving it up to the visitor to turn on a light. Interviewing visitors for her research, Tarle found reactions were mixed: Most welcomed the opportunity to consider the issue; a few felt the light switch only sensationalized the experience.

Some in the field do see a distinction between displays of ancient mummies and those of Indigenous people.

“It’s a question of power and colonialism, people like me making a career out of the remains of somebody’s ancestors,” said Simon Fraser archeology professor Jonathan Driver. “There are issues of power and privacy at work.”

Others feel there is a double standard and believe no human remains should be shown. Last year the Royal BC Museum welcomed an international touring exhibit about Pharaonic Egypt, but removed the mummies.

“We can’t be treating one group one way, and another group another,” the museum’s CEO Jack Lohman said. “They are all humans.”

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