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A Western Arctic kayak exhibited by Pope Pius XI in the 1920s has been in and out of storage ever since – until The Globe briefly saw it last week. Now, Inuvialuit Regional Corp.’s leader says he’s ‘shocked’ and it should come home

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The Vatican Museums have a rare Mackenzie Delta kayak that's more than a century old. While parts of its sealskin hull are damaged, it's in very good condition overall.Photography by Chris Warde-Jones/The Globe and Mail

An Inuvialuit leader wants the rare Western Arctic kayak held by the Vatican Museums sent back to the Mackenzie Delta region, where it was built a century ago.

In a statement released Friday, Duane Ningaqsiq Smith, chair and chief executive officer of the Inuvialuit Regional Corp. in Inuvik, NWT, said the IRC “is seeking the immediate return of all Indigenous artifact held in the collection of the Vatican Museum,” including the kayak.

His comments came three days after The Globe and Mail published an article about the Inuvialuit kayak and other Indigenous objects that had been stored unseen in a Vatican Museums’ vault for several decades, and two weeks ahead of the Indigenous groups’ visit to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis. The trip is part of a truth and reconciliation process following scandals over the abuse of generations of Indigenous children at schools run by the Catholic Church. In October, Pope Francis agreed to visit Canada – date to be determined – where he is expected to issue a formal apology for the abuses.

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The kayak's wooden frame is largely intact.

The IRC did not confirm if it was previously aware the Vatican had the kayak. The 4.4-metre hunting craft is referred to extensively in “The Americas” book published by the Vatican Museums’ ethnological museum (now known as Anima Mundi), and The Globe wrote about the Royal Ontario Museum’s examination of the boat in 2004.

Mr. Smith, who declined to join the delegation to the Vatican because of his anger over the Catholic Church’s treatment of Indigenous peoples, said he was “shocked by the insensitive display of these Inuvialuit and Indigenous artifacts at the Vatican Museums in the context of ongoing revelations related to the abuse and deaths of thousands of Indigenous children at Canadian residential schools, more than 60 per cent of which were run by the Catholic Church.”

The items to which Mr. Smith refers – the kayak and about 200 other Indigenous objects, from carvings of killer whales to headdresses – are not actually on display at the Vatican Museums. A few of the items, including the kayak, were removed by Anima Mundi curators from storage on Nov. 22 so they could be viewed exclusively by The Globe. They were put back into storage the next day.

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At top, restorer Martina Brunori looks at some items of Indigenous clothing as the kayak sits in the background. Curators also laid out a wooden artwork from a non-Indigenous artist inscribed 'from the bishops,' as well as several Inuit carvings, such as a killer whale given to Pope Paul VI by then prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

According to Kenneth Lister, a retired ROM curator who was the Toronto museum’s authority on Arctic watercraft, the kayak was built between the late 1800s and early 1900s and is a rare Western Arctic example – the larger Eastern Arctic versions are more common. Only six Western Arctic kayaks are known to exist, including the one in the Vatican’s possession. The others are in Smithsonian Institution in Washington, the National Museum of Denmark and the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau.

The Vatican Museums say the kayak and the other objects from the Mackenzie Delta area were “gifts” to the Vatican. They were collected by Joseph Élie Breynat, the Roman Catholic bishop in the Mackenzie area, in 1924 and shipped to Rome, where they became part of Pope Pius XI’s world expo of Indigenous artifacts. Some 100,000 objects from the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australasia were put on display for a year, after which much of the vast collection was put into storage. The Western Arctic kayak has been in and out of storage for the better part of a century and has not been on display for at least two decades, perhaps longer. It is in remarkably good shape, even if the sealskin cover has a few rips.

“This kayak is a piece of Inuvialuit history, made by Inuvialuit traditions,” Mr. Smith said. “It is not ‘the Pope’s kayak’ and rightfully belongs to the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, where its lessons and significance can benefit Inuvialuit culture and communities.”

He declined requests for an interview. In his statement, he reiterated his calls for a papal apology and demanded that the church take “immediate steps towards restitution, record sharing and the return of land held by the Diocese.”

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Anima Mundi's director, Father Nicola Mapelli, inspects the kayak with restorers.

Anima Mundi intends to restore the kayak after a dialogue with the Inuvialuit on the best restoration methods, and wants to seek advice on where and how the boat should be displayed. Father Nicola Mapelli, director of Anima Mundi, has offered to go to the Mackenzie area next year as part of this learning process and has said the boat might go on tour at some point.

The Vatican Museums did not comment on Friday on Mr. Smith’s statement. Last week, Stefania Pandozy, head of the Vatican Museums’ ethnological materials restoration library, said that it was important to get Indigenous peoples’ views on the restoration and display.

“We need to hear the voices of their culture,” she said in an interview. “The kayak conservation project will be a precious opportunity for human and professional growth for the laboratory to establish a fruitful dialogue with the Indigenous communities of origin and Canadian scholars who will be actively involved in the conservation choices.”

In a statement, Paul Gibbard, the chargé d’affaires at the Canadian embassy to the Holy See, said, “we stand ready to facilitate discussion between Indigenous Peoples in Canada and the Vatican Museums about the kayak and other artifacts, all currently in storage.”

Kayak at the Vatican: More from The Globe and Mail

Watch The Globe and Mail's Eric Reguly tour the Vatican Museums collection to learn more about where the kayak and other items came from.

The Globe and Mail

More reading

Tanya Talaga: Will accountability ever come in the Catholic Church and the Canadian government?

Suzanne Shoush: Do Catholic leaders truly feel they don’t owe Indigenous people an apology?

The Catholic Church in Canada is worth billions, a Globe investigation shows. Why are its reparations for residential schools so small?

How the church was freed from obligation to residential school survivors

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