When Pope Francis touches down in Edmonton on July 24 to begin his apology tour, he could demonstrate good faith that the Catholic Church truly seeks forgiveness by returning all the sacred Turtle Island “artifacts” the Vatican Museums hold in their private collection in Rome. There, under glass and away from view in the Anima Mundi section, lie wampum belts, moccasins, jewellery, masks and more.
That the Pope is even coming here is because of the dogged pressure of residential-school survivors, many of whom have been waiting for decades to hear the Pope utter the words “I’m sorry” here on Indigenous land. The papal tour of three cities – Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit – will last a week, and for many, it will never be enough, not after what has happened, not after all that our communities carry.
Some of the precious Vatican-held “artifacts” – we call them our grandmothers and grandfathers – are pieces of our nation’s hearts and spirits. Many were used in ceremonies and were handmade by our ancestors. Each holds irreplaceable meaning to First Nations, Métis and Inuit, especially after so much of what we had and who we are was destroyed by racist policies such as the Indian Act, which outlawed potlaches, our ceremonies, our languages and our ways of life. Meanwhile, our children were effectively imprisoned in so-called schools, which led to the deaths of countless Indigenous children. The Catholic Church ran 60 per cent of them.
So it would be a monumental sign of contrition for the papal delegation to bring the objects that originated from our communities. The Vatican has said that many of the “artifacts” were sent by Indigenous communities as gifts to the Pope, a claim challenged by experts such as McGill Professor Gloria Bell. About 100,000 of them were sent by missionaries in the 1920s, and at the time, “salvage anthropology” was also being practised by museums and universities. Every single piece the Vatican holds should be brought here with Pope Francis.
We have seen how the Church has dragged its feet on the $25-million it agreed to pay survivors in a 2005 settlement. How can an institution possibly begin to make amends for their part in genocide: the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren and the ensuing cultural damage and intergenerational trauma? Well, start with what you can. Bring home what we hold dear – especially since it would cost the Vatican little.
What does the Vatican have? I know there is a wampum belt, beautifully woven with purple and white beads, that took my breath away when I saw it. I saw that belt laid out as part of a display for the Indigenous delegation that travelled to Rome four months ago seeking a papal apology; the delegation was invited to lunch inside the museum, among the objects, on March 29. The belt was gifted to Pope Gregory XVI in 1832, the display card said; it was made of shell, cotton and skin and was apparently a gift from “a multicultural autochthonous community that had adopted Catholicism, Lac Des Deux Montagnes, Quebec, Canada.” The gift came with two letters, one in Algonquin and the other in Mohawk, and a pair of beaded moccasins. The card said it was made in August, 1831, at the Lake of Two Mountains, Kanehsatà:ke, near Montreal.
There was also an “Ontario” pipe stove and Haida Gwaii masks from the 18th century, a late 19th-century birch bark “container” made with vegetable fibres from Huntingdon, Que., and a miniature ball-headed club from the “Great Lakes region (Canada/USA) first half of the 19th century,” made of wood, tanned hide and porcupine quills. These were just some of what I was able to view before I was asked to leave the event.
Most of the other “gifts” to the Church had little information accompanying them. But we knew they were sacred objects, used in ceremonies; they are our relations. As such, they should have been treated delicately, with respect, and brought out only for certain occasions.
The sight of these precious objects gutted me. One of the First Nations youth delegates told me it was “like seeing a relative you haven’t seen in a long time.”
As a signatory to the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which calls for repatriation of culturally significant artifacts and human remains, Canada should be pushing for the return of our belongings.
Most of us are still on a journey of reclamation and, as such, the leader of the Church is on his way here to Canada to seek redemption. Repatriation – bringing back what was lost – would be a logical first step.
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