British Columbia

Archaeologist says returning First Nations heritage a big, expensive job

Archaeologist George Nicholas says he’s concerned the province isn’t living up to its broader obligations to protect First Nations’ heritage.

Archaeologist George Nicholas says call for return of items is good, but province needs to do more

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 a press conference Tuesday at the Royal B.C. Museum on returning Aboriginal peoples' cultural belongings. (CBC)

Premier Christy Clark called on museums and institutions around the world to return culturally significant artifacts to B.C. First Nations on Tuesday, but SFU professor of archaeology George Nicholas says there's more to repatriation than just asking for it all back.

There's the question of tracking down where all these items are; negotiating with museums and other institutions; and what Nicholas says is most unclear: who will pay for the repatriation?

"It's one thing where a museum in Europe offers to return something and offers to cover the expenses of that object or objects' coming back to British Columbia — but that's only a small part of the story," Nicholas told All Points West host Robyn Burns.

"There are many, many costs that need to be covered in terms of ceremonies, the repatriation, gifts for elders and those involved in the ceremonies. And for human remains, there are even more costs that come along with those. So this is a huge burden on First Nations," he said.

"I think, certainly, the Government of British Columbia has a responsibility to provide financial assistance."

Nicholas says he thinks the premier made the offer sincerely, but he's concerned the province isn't living up to its broader obligations to protect First Nations' heritage.

"And I find that very irresponsible," Nicholas said. "Making the announcement yesterday … is a very good thing. I think this is simply one part of a much larger package of issues and responsibilities and actions that need to be done."

'What planet has this guy been on?'

Nicholas says he believes most museums around the world will be willing to help with repatriation efforts, but don't really know where to begin.

He remembers visiting Australia in 1996 and telling a museum curator that he was from B.C.

"He said, 'Oh, we have a skull here from British Columbia from a reported Indian burial ground. Can you bring it back for us?'" he said. "My jaw dropped ... what planet has this guy been on not knowing that there are protocols for such things?"

Nicholas says he gave the museum curator leads on how to return the skull and who to return it to, but he's not sure if the repatriation of that item ever happened.

With files form All Points West

To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: Asking for First Nations heritage back a good start, prof says, but more is needed