A dozen sacred Indigenous relics dating from the signing of Treaty 7 have lain in a British museum for more than 140 years, but renewed political pressure could see movement on stalled pan-Atlantic negotiations to bring the collection home to Canada.
In October, after a visit to Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park east of Calgary, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney quietly penned letters to five English officials, urging movement on the repatriation of items that once belonged to Chief Crowfoot, a Blackfoot leader who signed Treaty 7 on Sept. 22, 1877. “Doing so,” Mr. Kenney wrote in each letter, “would be regarded as a great act of reconciliation with Canada’s indigenous people.”
The regalia is stored at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter, about 280 kilometres southwest of London. Meanwhile, 7,000 kilometres away, a purpose-built room at Blackfoot Crossing sits empty. The $100,000 room is carefully monitored to control humidity, temperature and light to preserve the delicate relics.
Stephen Yellow Old Woman, general manager of Blackfoot Crossing, worries the culturally significant belongings will never make their way home to the Siksika First Nation where Chief Crowfoot is buried.
The collection includes Chief Crowfoot’s cream-hued buckskin shirt and leggings adorned with red feathers and fringing, his smooth hardwood bow and iron-tipped arrow with case and quiver, the straps intricate with beaded blue, pink and yellow flowers. There’s also a bundle of feathers, beaded pouches, a deer hide necklace strung with grizzly bear claws, beads, animal teeth and brass studs – worn by warriors as “a symbol of courage and status,” according to the museum – and a Sheffield steel hunting knife lashed with the front part of a bear’s jaw.
Negotiations to return the collection to Canada began around 2010 and, in 2013, Blackfoot representatives flew to Britain to see the relics. That was followed by a 2014 trip in which RAMM staff visited the historical park and Blackfoot nations in Alberta. After that, negotiations sputtered to a standstill, according to Mr. Yellow Old Woman.
He hopes the letters Mr. Kenney sent to Exeter Lord Mayor Peter Holland, RAMM museums manager and cultural lead Camilla Hampshire, Arts Council England chief executive Darren Henley, Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw and Nicky Morgan, the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, are a significant step toward bringing the regalia home.
In a Nov. 5 e-mail to Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, which is assisting with the repatriation effort, and the historical park, RAMM explains the frustrating lack of progress. But, it notes, a letter from the Premier “has no effect whatsoever on how we operate here in the UK (no one wants to get their hands dirty in the decolonialism and restitution discourse).”
Mr. Kenney was not available for an interview for this story.
The sticking point of the repatriation seems to be the fact Blackfoot Crossing is not yet technically designated as a museum, but Mr. Yellow Old Woman says there is “extreme resistance” from RAMM to send Chief Crowfoot’s belongings home.
The items were acquired by Cecil Denny, a signatory witness to Treaty 7 who was a member of Canada’s North-West Mounted Police at the time. The treaty created reserves for Blackfoot tribes across large swaths of Southern Alberta in exchange for promised payments from the Canadian government.
The details of how Mr. Denny ended up with the regalia are murky. According to some theories, he purchased the items from Chief Crowfoot as a way of marking or honouring the words of the treaty. Others think the chief gifted or traded them to Mr. Denny, who by many accounts was one of the more respected police officers in the region at the time. What is clear is that the items were originally loaned to the museum by Mr. Denny’s sister in 1878. In 1904, RAMM purchased them for £10, which would be about $1,400 today.
The Arts Council England said in an e-mail it’s confident dialogue around the repatriation effort is occurring in an ethical, open and positive way, though RAMM ethnography curator Tony Eccles wouldn’t comment on how the discussions are going.
The Exeter City Council, RAMM’s governing body, wouldn’t say much either, but told The Globe and Mail the repatriation request is due to go before before council in May or June. In an e-mail, the council said that while it appreciates that the regalia is of great importance to the Blackfoot people, it has national standards and guidelines to adhere to as it considers a repatriation request. “We have requested, and are still await [sic] information, that would allow us to take the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park’s request forward for full governing body discussion,” it wrote.
The council wouldn’t expand on what information it has requested, but Mr. Yellow Old Woman said the historical park has done all that has been asked of it. “It’s brick wall after brick wall after brick wall. And the thing is, we climb it and get to the other side, and they put up another brick wall of the same requirements that we just fulfilled,” he said.
As much as the process has frustrated Mr. Yellow Old Woman, he said the park will continue to pursue repatriation because the items carry such significance for his people. “We believe many of these items are calling to come home,“ he said. “That’s what this lodge’s purpose is – to give them a home to come back to.”
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