British Columbia

B.C. demands return of First Nations artifacts

The province is calling on museums and institutions from around the world to give back artifacts and 'treasures' from B.C. First Nations.

Province pushing U.S. museums and institutions to return B.C. First Nations 'treasures' to B.C.

From left: B.C. Premier Christy Clark, Grand Chief Ed John and Regional Chief of B.C. Assembly of First nations Shane Gottfriedson take part in press conference at the Royal B.C. Museum on returning Aboriginal peoples cultural belongings. (CBC)

The province is calling on museums and institutions from around the world to give back artifacts and 'treasures' from British Columbia First Nations.

Over hundreds of years, items including grave goods, ceremonial regalia, masks and pieces of arts have found their way out of B.C. and into museums and private collections around the world.

"It is long past time that those items of such spiritual significance to First Nations in British Columbia found their way home to those communities," said B.C. Premier Christy Clark, standing in front of totem poles at the Royal B.C. museum in Victoria. 

"It is time for those institutions that have taken them away to give them back. These items were taken from British Columbia First Nations with the justification that the First Nations were cultures that were soon to go extinct. They did not." 

Letter to President Obama

Clark has sent U.S. President Barack Obama a letter requesting support from his government to have B.C. First Nations property returned. A number of items, including a 19-metre Haida canoe the American Museum of Natural History in New York, are housed in the United States. 

The B.C. provincial government and the Royal B.C. Museum will now work with Aboriginal peoples in the province to create a plan to identify and return ancestral remains and belongings of cultural significance. 

A Haida Canoe hangs at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. (American Museum of Natural History)

"We must right these wrongs and bring our ancestors home and bring our sacred items home. Our elders and our ancestors that lay in these boxes in storage, they cry," said B.C. Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Shane Gottfriedson.

"This is a way to wipe those tears away. It is not simply enough to talk about reconciliation."   

The United States has a law in place that cultural items from graves of American Indians be returned if the owners request the item. Clark said the law should apply to all North American First Nations.

'Spirits are feeling locked up'

Grand Chief Ed John has gone one step further asking the Canadian federal government to put in place a similar law here. 

"These are not simply objects," said John, standing beside a collection of First Nations belongings at the Royal B.C. Museum.

"These drums carry a sprit. They tell the stories of the maker. They become more than objects. They have a spirit in them. It belongs more than just a cultural object, they become part of who we are as indigenous people ... Sometimes when it is housed in a place like as beautiful as it may look, you know, those spirits are feeling locked up."

The Royal B.C. Museum does not know how many artifacts from British Columbia may be out there. The museum also won't say how many of its own items may need to be returned to First Nations.

For now, the museum will act as a temporary home for all the artifacts that are returned before more permanent locations can be found.

"There is no catalogue of British Columbia's heritage in terms of objects, material culture. The museum exists today as a safe haven for objects.," said Royal B.C. Museum CEO Jack Lohman.