New Brunswick

Bringing the remains of Wabanaki ancestors home to rest

Mi'kmaw Elder Donna Augustine says she works on behalf of her ancestors to end a 'hidden injustice' being perpetrated against them and their living descendants.

Elder Donna Augustine says proper burials for museum bodies will bring healing

Mi'kmaw Elder Donna Augustine looks out at the river from her home in Elsipogtog. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

The fifth in a series of weekly stories about Wabanaki elders — knowledge keepers, teachers, healers and spiritual guides — who have made remarkable contributions in their own communities and beyond.

Donna Augustine is a Mi'kmaw elder from Elsipogtog First Nation who is on a mission to reclaim and bury the remains of Indigenous people.

She tangles with the likes of the Smithsonian Institution and Harvard University.

And she's driven by a force that can wake her up in the middle of the night and send her packing on a flight to Norway or Tennessee.

A lot of people have no idea this work is going on, she said.

"It's like a hidden injustice."

Augustine believes it's her responsibility to speak up for "those old ones that can no longer speak for themselves."

The Elders: Donna Augustine

CBC News New Brunswick

5 days ago
This Elsipogtog elder finds purpose and passion in repatriation and reburial of Indigenous people whose remains are held by museums. 3:34

In the same way that small children need their parents to speak for them, "they need our help," she said.

Augustine believes the spirits of departed ancestors are "disturbed, totally" when their remains are desecrated by various means, ranging from accidental disturbance in construction projects to intentional scientific poking, prodding, scraping or boiling. 

"You would not believe some of the things," she said.

"We are the most studied people on the face of this earth. I don't know what they're looking for. I think they're all looking for the ultimate find."

A view of the river from Augustine's home. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Keeping remains in museums is sacrilege to Augustine.

"You don't have to dig up my dead to tell me who I am," she said. "I already know who I am."

She strongly objects to remains being treated as specimens or objects.

"You would not see native people going behind a church and digging up a burial site to see what diet that they ate, why they had inner ear infections."

"They were somebody's child, somebody's grandfather, somebody's mother, somebody's father," she said.

"It's the respect for life."

Mi'kmaw Elder Donna Augustine Thunderbird Turtle Woman at home in Elsipogtog. (Myfanwy Davies/CBC)

Augustine finds it ironic that the racist slur "savages" has been used against her people.

"Think about it," she said. "They still hold ancestral remains in museums and universities. To me, it's so barbaric."

She sees her role as a caretaker.

Her "fight" with Harvard is over remains from the Nevin archeological site in Blue Hill, Maine.

A U.S. law enacted in 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, requires federally funded institutions to provide inventories of their holdings of Indigenous cultural items, such as human remains and funerary and sacred objects and return them to living descendants and affiliated tribes.

According to documents filed in 2015, the remains of at least 19 individuals along with about 500 funerary objects were removed from the Nevin site between 1936 and 1940. 

Augustine said she visited the remains being held at Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Massachusetts, and conducted a ceremony there promising she'd be back for them and see them interred.

She said some funerary objects have been returned, but so far no remains.

Augustine said the objects are being stored at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbour, Maine, until a reburial can be held.

Donna Augustine burns sage and offers a prayer to her ancestors before talking about the work she's doing on their behalf. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

The chair of Harvard's advisory committee on the repatriation law said in an interview with the Harvard Gazette earlier this year that so far, the Peabody has repatriated about 34 per cent of its collection of human remains, most collected during large archeology expeditions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Philip Deloria said Harvard has worked hard for the past 30 years to implement the requirements of the law. He said dedicated staff are constantly working on it, and they deal with about 50 cases a year.

He admitted the process "can be very frustrating, and it moves slowly."

Offering prayers and gifts to the ancestors before she talks about them and her work for them. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Sometimes there's no clear link between the remains and any federally recognized tribe, he said. Other times, more than one tribe can make a case. Sometimes collections are shared with other institutions whose assessments under the federal law differ from Harvard's.

The situation has improved since the U.S. repatriation legislation was passed, said Augustine.

But she feels institutions have been too slow to comply and not always up front about what they have.

"So many times I've knocked on doors and no one has let me inside," she said.

"We've had to jump through so many hoops, but I will never give up on those ancestors."

The pendant Augustine is wearing represents her spirit name Thunderbird Turtle Woman. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Augustine said her first reburials in Maine followed five years of bureaucratic tussling. The ceremonies took two full days from sunrise to sunset, she said, because she wanted to give all 126 ancestors their due.

Over the years she has protected the burial sites of thousands of ancestors and reburied hundreds, from many different tribes.

"This is my work," she said. "This is what I came to this earth to do."

She said she doesn't get paid in money but feels rewarded when spirits are "set free."

She invited any museum to reach out to her and offered to look after reburials for them at no charge.

Augustine's drum and smudging materials. (Myfanwy Davies/CBC)

She said tribes in Maine, where she is a member of the Aroostook band, have designated her to carry out repatriation work, but "the real designation" comes from the ancestors.

"They come to me," she said.

The first time that happened, said Augustine, was in the 1970s, when a burial ground in Metepenagiag, about 30 kilometres west of Miramichi, was excavated.

She said she woke up in the middle of the night and felt that the spirit of one of the ancestors who'd been dug up had come to her for help.

She performed reburial ceremonies and sometime later she received her spirit name, Thunderbird Turtle Woman.

Singing a song for her ancestors. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Augustine believes that was the name of the ancestor who came to her, and it was passed on to her as a reward for her service.

That's not the only time Augustine said she was awakened in the middle of the night by disturbed spirits.

One time, she said, she felt directed to travel to Nashville, Tenn.

"When I arrived there, they were digging up a burial site of ancestors buried in the Susquehanna tradition about 2,500, 3,000 years ago to build a super Walmart." 

Donna Augustine's work is focused on reburying the remains of ancestors being held in places such as museums and universities. (Myfanwy Davies/CBC)

Augustine said she's also done reburials in other countries. 

She said she helped rebury two women at a Viking burial site in Norway. She reburied a 13-year-old girl in India. And she reburied a boy of seven or eight in Sicily. 

Another international project, she said, was helping the Maori repatriate some remains from the U.S.

Closer to home, Augustine was one of the people who gathered in Jemseg, east of Fredericton, where remains were discovered when a new Trans-Canada Highway was being built in the 1990s.

A camp set up near the Wolastoqey burial ground discovered during preparations for a Trans-Canada Highway project in Jemseg in 1996. (CBC News)

Some may credit chiefs or archeologists for getting the highway rerouted, but to Augustine it shows the strength of the ancestors.

"With only our sacred fire standing there seven days and seven nights in the middle of the cold winter … that happened."

Augustine is not against archeology, per se, and she's glad to see Indigenous people getting into that line of work, but she thinks there are serious spiritual obligations that come with it.

Even touching remains confers a responsibility, she said.

Augustine said some people might be aghast at the thought of reburying items of archeological or scientific value.

But the way she sees it, those objects "no longer belong to this world."

Mi'kmaw Elder Donna Augustine has spent her life protecting her ancestors. She spoke with Information Morning producer Myfanwy Davies. 13:14

And it's "traumatizing," she said, when burial sites are dug up.

"When they can dig up our burial sites at random and at will they are telling us, 'You are less than us. You are not worthy of respect' — 2021 and this is still happening."

"It's time to do what is right."

Augustine is correct that human remains buried long ago are still being collected and studied.

According to a sampling of news in just the past couple of months from the Archaeological Institute of America, 11 sets of human remains dated to about 8,500 years ago have been unearthed in northwestern Turkey and seven Viking tombs were excavated in east-central Sweden ahead of a construction project.

The archeological dig in Jemseg. (CBC News )

Meanwhile, 20,000-year-old remains of a man unearthed on the main island of Okinawa in the 1970s recently underwent mitochondrial DNA analysis and 61 skeletons from a cemetery in Sudan dated from 13,400 to 18,600 years ago, held at the British museum, were recently examined by microscope.

Augustine points out that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Persons, which Canada has accepted and is in the process of implementing, stipulates that Indigenous persons have the right to protect their burial grounds and other cultural sites, and that states must enable repatriation through fair and effective mechanisms. 

She would like to see a repatriation law in Canada similar to the one in the U.S. 

"Until they give them back to us," she said, "there's an injustice imposed on our people today."

"They need to return our ancestors and they need to leave our burial sites alone."

"I will not give up. Until I take my last breath."

In response to a request for comment from CBC News, Rachael Dane, director of media relations for Harvard's faculty of arts and sciences, said the Peabody Museum had been in communication recently with the Wabanaki Tribes of Maine Repatriation Committee, of which Augustine is a member.

As a result, the museum submitted a notice under the repatriation law "to enable the homecoming of individuals and associated funerary belongings," including individuals from the Nevin archeological site.

Once the notice has been published for a required 30 days, said Dane, the Wabanaki committee indicated it would come to retrieve the remains immediately.

"The museum looks forward to their visit," she said.

Augustine said she was "very, very happy," to hear that and optimistic it will happen, but she was careful not to get her hopes too high after previous disappointments.

"When these ancestors are back, it's going to be such a huge celebration," she said. "It will achieve a huge part of my life's purpose."

"Thunderbird Turtle Woman will be so happy."

With files from Myfanwy Davies