Repatriation specialist joins B.C. museum to return First Nations artifacts

The Royal B.C. Museum is expanding its repatriation program to return hundreds of ancient remains and sacred cultural objects to First Nations communities.

This is the second position created for the Royal B.C. Museum's repatriation program, which started in 2017

Artist and educator Lou-ann Neel has been hired for the role of repatriation specialist with the Royal B.C. Museum as part of the First Nations repatriation program. (Lou-ann Neel/Facebook)

The Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria is expanding its repatriation program to return hundreds of ancient remains and sacred cultural objects to First Nations communities.

The museum has hired artist and educator Lou-ann Ika'wega Neel as a reparation specialist to assist with the large job of contacting local First Nations to return these items.

"One of our first priorities is going to be the ancestral remains that have come into the collection over the last hundred years," Neel told On The Island's Gregor Craigie.

Neel said the expansive collection includes many artifacts that were confiscated under the potlatch ban and shouldn't have been taken in the first place, so returning them is a piece in Canada's efforts toward reconciliation.

Old art, new knowledge

This new position ties in with Neel's work as an artist, she said, because she sees all artifacts as a reflection of cultural art.

"I think that's one of the things that gets overlooked a lot when we talk about objects in museums," Neel said. "These pieces were created for ceremony, for everyday use, but all of them were created by artists."

Returning these collected artifacts to their communities could also revitalize the knowledge that lies in the craft of each item.

For instance, Neel has spent time at the Burke museum in Seattle studying pieces that belonged to the coastal First Nations to learn a more about their style of carving, painting and other crafts.

She said she used that research to incorporate traditional techniques into her own art and recreated some of the pieces that were made prior to contact.

"It's very informative to artists. It's important for us to learn some of these styles and types of things that used to be created," she said.

In April, the museum received a $500,000 grant to help First Nations communities recover these historically and culturally significant items as well as intangible heritage like songs, stories and language recordings.  

The B.C. government had previously allocated $2 million to the museum in 2016 to develop the First Nations department and repatriation program.

To hear the full interview listen to media below:

The Royal B.C. Museum is expanding its repatriation program to return hundreds of ancient remains and sacred cultural objects to First Nations communities. 5:54

With files from On The Island