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Nika Collison, Curator of the Haida Gwaii Museum, is photographed next to the Haida Longhouse at the UBC Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, British Columbia, June 19, 2017.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Chief Janice George of the Squamish Nation becomes emotional when talking about one of her family’s most cherished heirlooms. It’s a wooden loom that her great-great-grandfather built for his second wife, a Squamish weaver. While Chief George has seen the loom in person, it is currently housed at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que. – some 4,500 kilometres and an entire country away from home.

“The wool that she spun by hand was worked up on that loom,” said Chief George. “Knowing that she did that and took care of that knowledge … it would be so important to have it back.”

Chief George is a weaver herself. She knows the value of having ancestral weavings and weaving tools to study as a practitioner and artist.

“Because of the residential schools, there was an interruption in our culture, where we didn’t have those teachings and weren’t in contact with those knowledge keepers that were doing the weaving,” she said. “Being a weaver and a weaving teacher, I feel sad that we couldn’t have talked to them and asked them what their designs were and what the colours meant to them.

“We know a few ceremonial colours, but now we just advise our students to weave their own story. To have [our weavings] back and to be able to study them and get a feeling for what the weaver was trying to say – it means a lot. It’s inspiring and makes us so proud.”

The Squamish Nation has been working to repatriate items such as weavings for many years. They are only one of the many Indigenous groups in British Columbia – and across Canada – engaged in this work.

Repatriation is the process of returning important cultural objects and ancestral remains to the Indigenous communities where they originated. These exchanges, which have been under way for several decades now, usually occur between Indigenous groups and the museums and government institutions where these items have been housed. In the past, the financial and logistical burdens of the process have often been disproportionately placed on the groups hoping to reclaim their cultural heritage. It can be a costly and lengthy endeavour.

A recent program spearheaded by the BC Museum Association (BCMA) aims to mitigate this.

Initiated by a $500,000 B.C. government grant in 2020, the money was divided up by the BCMA, under consultation with an Indigenous advisory committee, to provide funding for 25 different research and repatriation projects for 50 First Nations and Indigenous communities in B.C.

“Because of the colonization of Canada, a lot of Indigenous cultural property was taken and moved to locations all over the world and much of it was not documented – where it was taken or where it ended up,” said Ryan Hunt, executive director of the BCMA. “So the research component is really integral for Indigenous communities to find out where their ancestors and cultural property are today. It’s not uncommon to find cultural material from B.C. in museums and private collections across the world.”

“The project grants are for projects that have already gone through the research phase,” he said. “So for communities that know where their cultural property is located and need to return it. Repatriation isn’t just one thing. It can be research, it can be hiring people to do the work, it can be ceremony, it can be building appropriate vessels and storage locations.”

Mr. Hunt said the BCMA hoped to fund whatever the applicant communities found most beneficial for their repatriation efforts, making the process as accessible as possible.

Chief George was one of the Indigenous advisory committee members who helped to adjudicate the grants. She has engaged in repatriation projects with the Squamish Nation in the past and knows how meaningful the process can be.

“There’s a lot of pain and hurt and I think a lot of it stems from the fact that we didn’t really have a say in what was taken. In B.C., we have always kept our culture close to our hearts, for fear of exploitation. I think [repatriation] opens up the door for museums and Indigenous people to have a relationship, and for Indigenous nations to share more trustingly,” she said.

The Squamish Nation, which applied for a project-based BCMA grant, plans to use the money it received to repatriate important cultural items from various museums, including ancestral remains from the Museum of Vancouver (MOV).

Sharon Fortney, who is the head of Indigenous collections and engagement at the MOV, says many museums are shifting their thinking around collecting, especially as it relates to Indigenous communities.

“There’s been so much taken away from communities, so it’s important to give back what we can,” she said. “It’s about repairing our relationship. A lot of things left communities under coercion. [Repatriation] is about repairing those past mistakes that we made through the Indian Act and other laws that were in place in our country. It needs to be corrected. Cultural expression, language and religion are all enmeshed in these belongings.”

According to Ms. Fortney, the MOV is increasingly focused on “ethical collecting,” which means that if a community has a direct claim on an item and no other community has a competing claim (which can sometimes happen), they will return it with no further questions asked.

One of the issues that can arise in repatriation efforts is a lack of information about the materials in question.

“At the MOV, our collection was started in the 1890s, before museums were really a profession,” Ms. Fortney said. “We had these hand-written ledgers for items that came into the museums. Descriptions were very vague sometimes so we can’t always match belongings back to their donors.”

This is one reason why the MOV has recently digitized their entire collection and made it available for communities to peruse on their website.

It’s this exact work that Jisgang Nika Collison and the Haida Gwaii Museum envisioned when they applied for their BCMA research grant last year. With the $35,000 it received, in addition to further funding from the Vancouver Foundation and the BC Arts Council, the museum was able to hire a research co-ordinator and a research specialist, both of whom have already helped expand their database of potential repatriation items immensely.

“I, along with my colleagues, have been championing repatriation grants for years,” said Ms. Collison, who, in addition to her work at the Haida Gwaii Museum in Skidegate, has been an active member of the Haida Repatriation Committee since the late 1990s. “It’s really good to see these grants. That money is needed.”

“[Our research consultant] has been hired to research about 3,000 pieces in the Canadian Museum of History that are either known to be Haida or believed to be,” she said.

“Repatriation benefits everyone. It’s scholarship, it’s healing, it brings people together, and it helps to right wrongs of the past. And Canada needs to step up.”

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