Blackfoot artifacts scattered across museums in Britain now have a digital home where their stories can be shared with their descendants.
A collaboration between researchers at the University of Lethbridge, the Blackfoot Confederacy and three British museums is virtually bringing 19 non-sacred objects to life with interactive 3D models.
An ocean away from its original home, a pair of moccasins purchased in 1929 from the Piikani Nation sits in storage at Cambridge University’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. A parfleche bag, or Asootsímaan, from the Kainai Nation more than 100 years old is in storage at the British Museum. The Horniman Museum and Gardens in London has a bag made from the skin of a bison fetus made in the 1800s.
Many of the artifacts were taken by archeologists, anthropologists and various other collectors.
In 2019, a group of researchers from the University of Lethbridge along with Blackfoot elders and students travelled to Britain to view and photograph the objects. They were also aided by a British research team.
Now they have launched the Mootookakio’ssin website, part of the Blackfoot Digital Library. The library is dedicated to providing information on Blackfoot nations and people of the Blackfoot Confederacy through historical documents such as photos, field notes and recordings.
“Those items aren’t just about individual use,” said Melissa Shouting, a member of the Kainai Nation and a master’s student in health science who was involved in the project.
“They’re also about community engagement, community well-being and just helping somebody develop that sense of identity about who they are and where they come from and the people that they’re connected to. So it’s all about collectivism versus that individualistic approach.”
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Ms. Shouting said the trip to Britain prepared her for a headdress transfer, a process whereby elders select someone who shows maturity and consideration of others. She had been approached a few times for transfers, but declined because she felt she wasn’t ready.
“I had realized that London had gotten me ready for my transfer because of the items that I saw,” Ms. Shouting said.
“I had understood how certain things were made, the process of going through the act of creating those items and I realized that those items had gifted me with the knowledge of how to craft them before I had even gone into my transfer.”
The objects displayed on the Mootookakio’ssin were captured using reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) and photogrammetry, two techniques commonly used in archaeology.
RTI is used by taking multiple photos of an object with the light source coming from a different angle each time. This captures the shape and colour of an object and also reveals subtle surface details. It is often used in cultural heritage imaging.
Photogrammetry involves taking the information gathered by many different photos to create meshes or in this case, a 3D digital model via software tools.
The team visited the MAA where they photographed 10 items, including a swan-foot bag, a quillwork bracelet and a beaded awl case said to have belonged to Little Plume, an Amskapipiikani chief estimated to have been born in the mid-19th-century. It is also believed that the awl case belonged to his wife, Cuts Different.
The team then photographed 17 images for digital modelling at the British Museum, including knife sheaths, beaded belts and a story robe.
Their last stop for the voyage was at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. Here they imaged two headdresses, a buffalo fetus bag and an inisskimm, or buffalo stone, said to be a bringer of good fortune.
Christine Clark, assistant professor of new media at the University of Lethbridge, said there is a lack of information on how these items were acquired by the museums. In comparison, there is usually extensive documentation of those who donated items.
“It’s been a real process of discovery, detective work and research with each piece to try and get a better idea of where it might have come from or who it might have belonged to,” Prof. Clark said.
“I think the other sort of really interesting thing about the items as far as why they’re important, is just how much each one of those items represents material culture and knowledge and connections with the land.”
The website was launched amid a growing push from Indigenous communities in Alberta and elsewhere to have their historic artifacts returned.
Anita Herle, the senior curator at the MAA, hosted the research team in 2019 and had previously hosted representatives from all four Blackfoot Nations as part of a project that focused on Blackfoot Collections in British museums. She said the Blackfoot have not yet made repatriation requests to MAA.
“However, the collaborative work we did as part of the earlier project eventually led to the repatriation of Crowfoot’s Shirt from Exeter Museum,” Dr. Herle said.
Piikani elder Jerry Potts, who was part of the London trip, has worked with several other museums and had been involved in the repatriation of several ceremonial items of the Blackfoot people.
“We’re fighting to keep our language and to keep our culture alive,” Mr. Potts said. “Even in our own communities, we’ve got so many folks that are in their second and third generation of Christian raising and they don’t understand what a lot of this material means to the well-being of the masses. It’s not about religion or anything. It’s about learning who you are and where your people are from.”
The Siksika First Nation, located east of Calgary, had been pressing for the return of regalia that once belonged to Blackfoot leader Chief Crowfoot, who is buried on the grounds of the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park, and received support from Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. In April, 2020, Exeter City Council voted to return the regalia.
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