Troy Sebastian/nupqu ʔak·ǂam̓ is a writer from ʔaq̓am and is a PhD student in writing at the University of Victoria. He is the former curator of the Indigenous collection at the Royal BC Museum.
On a June day in 2010, the Ktunaxa Nation Council and representatives from the Royal BC Museum met in a room named after Chief David, the honoured Ktunaxa chief from Tobacco Plains, in a building that had once served as a chapel for a residential school. After six decades, the former school at the foot of the Rockies had closed down and eventually transformed into the St. Eugene Mission Resort: a hotel, golf course and casino owned by Ktunaxa Nation, and the only such enterprise to operate at any former residential school in the country.
Gathered in the Chief David Room on that summer day were provincial representatives, local politicians, Ktunaxa leaders and community members, including former students of the school. They were all there to witness a momentous occasion: the signing of a custodial agreement that affirmed the province’s recognition of the value of Ktunaxa culture, including the Ktunaxa cultural objects held in possession by the museum. The agreement also committed both parties to a formal relationship regarding the material’s management, use and protection. The pact, one of the first of its kind for any Canadian museum with any First Nation, was seen as a starting point for further steps together. That included the potential for repatriation – the process by which sacred and cultural materials as well as human remains held in the possession of cultural institutions and private collections are returned to Indigenous communities.
Part of the signing ceremony involved the return of 10 Ktunaxa objects for display at the nation’s Interpretive Centre, which is located in the basement of the St. Eugene Mission. The Ktunaxa items on display included a beaded cradleboard, belts and pipes, none of which had been in the territory for at least 50 years. Over the course of a few days, Ktunaxa from every community came to view, take pictures of, and – under the care and direction of museum staff – hold the objects. Elders had not seen the items since childhood. For younger Ktunaxa, it was their first time seeing the fine beadwork and craft of the items at all.
I was there, and I remember a reverence being paid to the Ktunaxa cultural material that day. Beholding these sacred objects, which had been banned by the province, taken by the museum and effectively outlawed by the residential school, was a powerful moment for everyone involved. It was a proud day for Ktunaxa.
But a few days later, the objects were returned back to the museum in Victoria. Few Ktunaxa have seen them since.
The event highlighted the complicated politics and process of repatriation, which Indigenous people in Canada have been pursuing for decades. In a passage cited by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report in 2015, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) emphasized the importance of “fair, transparent and effective mechanisms” for returning human remains and cultural artifacts; in recent years, governments in Ottawa and in B.C. have passed legislation to start aligning laws with UNDRIP. Now, after a year of discoveries of unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools across the country, governments, museums and religious orders are under mounting pressure to undertake real action for justice – including through repatriation.
In December, the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation called for the repatriation of a sealskin kayak that the Vatican claims was a “gift to Pope Pius XI” from a Roman Catholic bishop, one of around 200 Indigenous artifacts that were exhibited in the 1920s and have since sat in the Vatican’s vaults. “It is not ‘the Pope’s kayak’ and rightly belongs in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, where its lessons and significance can benefit Inuvialuit culture and communities,” said the group, which represents the interests of Inuit in the western Arctic.
But for years, institutions have played trickster, requiring First Nations to establish museum-quality holding capacity as a non-negotiable condition for repatriation – or, as in the case of Vatican, an institution with an infamously unquantifiable fortune, institutions have simply ignored or rejected the calls. The capacity issues that have purportedly disqualified Indigenous communities from repatriating their items, however, stem from colonization: a lack of housing, unsafe water, and unreliable sources of energy, just to name a few. For a time, provincial treaty-negotiation mandates required First Nations to accept a division of their material, with a portion to be held by the museum; one party would draw up two lists dividing the artifacts, and the other party would get first pick of one of the two lists. Such a policy was hardly just, and very few First Nations agreed with it. The result: the repository of held cultural items from First Nations is immense, singular and contested.
These responses to repatriation efforts hold a familiar cadence: repatriation if necessary, but not necessarily repatriation. And they show a cycle of behaviour that keeps Indigenous communities apart from their collections.
Museums, from Vatican City to Victoria, helped create and profit from the “Vanishing Indian” ideology of early 20th-century anthropology – a genocidal theory that presumed that Indigenous peoples were going to die off, and so their cultural material was more important than the peoples themselves.
For decades, the curatorial posture of many museums was a combination of that theory and “salvage anthropology,” a policy and practice aimed at taking cultural material of Indigenous peoples prior to extinction, and then displaying them in a framework that presupposed the superiority of western civilization. This remains, too often, embedded in the attitudes of many institutions.
Governments and churches also played a significant role in this process, in concert with museums: The province would take the land, the church would take the children, and the museum would take the cultural material.
Indeed, the vast majority of cultural material held by these institutions was collected while Indigenous peoples’ rights to practise their culture was effectively outlawed (including through the Potlatch Ban), and while residential schools, aimed at taking “the Indian out of the child,” were mandatory.
To say that the items collected by these museums was done without duress is to warp the very bounds of plausibility: it is simply not true.
So what is the path forward?
Over the past 30 years, there have been positive, if slow-moving, changes. In 1990, the United States passed the Native American Graves and Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a seminal policy standard which has resulted in the return of Indigenous human remains, sacred objects and cultural items across the Americas. Despite years of struggle, lobbying, painstaking research at institutions from Chicago to Stockholm, and countless and challenging community and cultural engagements within Indigenous communities – often done at a considerable cost – the first steps of repatriation began. Most started by returning human remains, the holding of which are now rightly seen as an unseemly and damning practice.
Here in Canada, however, the process has been slower going. In 2016, on National Aboriginal Day, then-B.C. premier Christy Clark announced that her government was committed to repatriation: “It is long past time that these items of such spiritual significance to First Nations in B.C. find their way home to those communities,” she declared. Later that year, her Liberal government announced $2-million in funding to the newly renamed Indigenous Collection and Repatriation (ICAR) department at the Royal BC Museum. The next year, a province-wide repatriation conference was held to hear from First Nations, a consultation that produced the Indigenous Repatriation Handbook, as prepared by the Royal BC Museum and the Haida Gwaii Museum at Kay Linagaay. Under that framework, First Nations across the province prepared to undertake repatriation efforts.
But when John Horgan’s NDP took power in the province in 2017, they quickly found the road forward beset by the attitudes of yesterday. And in 2020, after years of challenging and frustrating work attempting to get the Royal BC Museum ready for repatriation processes, the director of ICAR resigned, citing a toxic work environment that was rife with racism.
Soon after, an independent investigation looked into workplace culture at the Royal BC Museum; last summer, the museum received the report and acknowledged “the colonial history of the Museum and the systemic racism inherent in that history,” and further, that “there have been acts of racism and discrimination at the Museum. Indigenous team members and members of other equity-seeking groups were subjected to microaggression and acts of discriminatory behaviour.”
The museum publicly apologized and committed the institution to align with the province’s commitment to UNDRIP and to replace and modernize the museum’s galleries. Then late last year, the museum announced its plan to close its popular third-floor permanent gallery in an effort to decolonize the institution.
However needed the changes to the museum’s galleries are, the question remains: when will the museum really begin its repatriation efforts? Six years after Ms. Clark’s commitment, very little has happened. Objects are still being held by the province, and First Nations are growing increasingly frustrated by the repeated appeals for patience.
This is the great difficulty in writing about repatriation, especially when the cultural material in question is from one’s nation, community, family and parents: The tonal space lies between the funerary reverence of the recently departed and the impotent furor of sailors in a becalm sea. The loss is palpable, the need for a change of course is dire, and the calls for patience are a bitter echo that always seems to ring out. There doesn’t seem to be an appetite for seeking or crafting understanding. Determined exhaustion is the mentality of the moment. Indigenous peoples are tired of waiting for aloof cultural dinosaurs to return that which is rightfully ours.
This is particularly disappointing, given that all Canadians can surely understand the power of bringing history and culture back to its rightful place. On April 17, 1982, in front of a gathered crowd in Ottawa, Queen Elizabeth II signed a royal proclamation, marking then-prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s crowning achievement: the patriation of the country’s constitution. With the Queen’s signature, Canada’s constitution “came home,” transferring the British North America Act from the authority of the British Parliament to Canada’s federal and provincial legislatures, and changing the country forever by giving Canada the right to independently amend its own constitution.
However one feels about Mr. Trudeau, the Canada Act 1982 and its Charter of Rights and Freedoms have materially changed the country both in law and in culture. To have a constitution that was made in Canada, by and for Canadians, was a decades-long dream. Much of the cultural framework of the country and the stories it tells of itself are bound to that patriation; it gave renewed life to Canada, and whatever the path forward, one must imagine the 1982 patriation continuing in its seminal and central role for decades to come.
So too is the promise and necessity of repatriation for countless Indigenous communities across the country seeking the return of their national and cultural birthrights. Some may choose to leave objects on display in public museums; others will choose to hold them within their own communities, while some items will be returned to the earth, akin to the human remains they were or should have been buried with. But whatever the choice, it will be an Indigenous choice. That is, after all, what is at the heart of repatriation: the question of whether Indigenous peoples in Canada have the right to protect and own their culture. As Mr. Trudeau once said: “We wish nothing more, but we will accept nothing less.”
The reconciliation question: More from The Globe and Mail
For the first-ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation last September, The Decibel took a look at the Canadian Reconciliation Barometer, a new tool made by Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers. Subscribe for more episodes.