Hundreds of Blackfoot artifacts are held in British museums. Here's how one project bridges the gap
3-year project involved university researchers, led by Blackfoot advisers and elders
In 2019, a group of researchers, Blackfoot elders and students from southern Alberta and Montana travelled to England to view Blackfoot items held in three museum collections.
One of those individuals was John Murray, the Blackfeet tribal historic preservation officer. The trip was an empowering experience, he said.
"You could feel the energy. It was very touching for me," he said. "In the Blackfoot worldview, or knowledge system, the spirit is always connected.
"That's not unique to the Blackfeet. But we could feel that. We've talked about that — this particular energy that we were all able to experience."
WATCH | See how the new Mootookakio'ssin website functions while examining a 3D model of moccasins worn by Blackfoot people:
Three years later, the culmination of the work undertaken is available on the Mootookakio'ssin website. The interactive website allows users to interact with historic non-sacred Blackfoot belongings that previously were only seen in museums.
Mootookakio'ssin translates to "distant awareness," and was named by Dr. Leroy Little Bear. The project is part of the Blackfoot Digital Library, meaning the copyright is held by the Blackfoot people.
The project was led by Blackfoot advisors and elders from the Kainai, Siksika and Piikani First Nations in southern Alberta and the Amskapipiikani or Blackfeet Nation in Montana.
It involved researchers from the University of Lethbridge and the United Kingdom, both graduate and undergraduate students, and three British museums, the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, and the British Museum and the Horniman Museum and Gardens, both in London.
Some of the items in those museums belonged to Murray's great-grandfather, Little Plume, an influential Amskapipiikani chief.
In 1909, a group of ethnographers arrived in the area near where Little Plume was living. One of them was the British ethnologist Alfred Cort Haddon.
During the period when children were being forced to attend residential schools and policies were implemented that led to starvation among many Indigenous communities, Haddon wrote about the need to document Indigenous culture before European settlement caused it to disappear.
With a goal of "preserving" Indigenous culture, items were removed from nations. Today, many of those artifacts remain in museums and private collections.
The items have been largely inaccessible to people living in Blackfoot territory — but the Mootookakio'ssin project seeks to change that.
Digital imaging and web technologies
Melissa Shouting, a member of Kainai Nation and a graduate student at the University of Lethbridge, said that as a Blackfoot artist, the first thing she noticed about the items was the technique used.
"Once the team started working on the images and digitizing them and putting the images together so that we could see them in 3D, it was really amazing to see the detail that I couldn't see when I had it in my hand," she said.
That level of detail helps when it comes to replicating items that are needed in daily activities, as well as within ceremonies.
"It connects us to our ancestors," Shouting said. "The stories that started to generate when we were talking about the items … we realized that we were deeply connected as a community."
Christine Clark, a professor of new media in the faculty of fine arts at the U of L, said that with the models and images in tow, the team built the custom website.
The website displays the items along with stories about their history, materials and design that had been lost in translation when they were put into museums.
"It's an opportunity to explain one of the legacies of colonialism and why the items are still so important to Blackfoot people today," Clark said.
While some artifacts have been repatriated from museums, access to others remains limited. But it's the goal of the Mootookakio'ssin project to spread knowledge of Blackfoot materials, tradition and history.
"I'm sure it's going to grow," said Murray, the tribal historic preservation officer. "And I hope other museums in Europe will follow suit, because we have a lot of items that are over there.
"This gets our [Blackfeet] back in touch with their own identity, their own self-worth. I think it's going to be well-received by the Blackfeet."
CBC Calgary has launched a Lethbridge bureau to help tell your stories from southern Alberta with reporter Joel Dryden. Story ideas and tips can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.