Inuvialuit want their kayak back from Vatican Museums

The Inuvialuit Regional Corporation wants a kayak made by Inuvialuit returned from the Vatican Museums.

Catholic bishop of Mackenzie-Fort Smith area says Inuvialuit wish 'needs to be honoured and respected'

Inuvialuit Regional Corporation would like to repatriate this Inuvialuit kayak currently being held in a collection of the Vatican Museums in Rome. (Submitted by Ken Lister)

The Inuvialuit Regional Corporation wants a kayak made by Inuvialuit returned to the place where it was made.

The kayak, along with several other Indigenous artifacts, is currently on display in the Vatican Museums in Rome.

"It is not 'the Pope's kayak' and rightly belongs in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, where its lessons and significance can benefit Inuvialuit culture and communities," reads a press release from the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, which represents the interests of Inuit in the western Arctic, known collectively as Inuvialuit.

The organization has called displaying the artifacts "insensitive" given ongoing revelations related to the abuse and deaths of Indigenous children at Canadian residential schools.

The return of the kayak to the Inuit of the western Arctic presents some challenges because the object is fragile. Everything from light levels to temperature must be considered. (Submitted by Ken Lister)

Ry Moran, associate university librarian for reconciliation at the University of Victoria, says the repatriation of Indigenous objects is important, "so that we can both regain agency over this information and, fundamentally, put it into the service of healing and well-being both now and into the future."

The repatriation of such objects is stated in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report, said Moran, who is Métis.

He said museums need to be transparent about what they hold and open to the return of materials if that's what's desired by a community.

Ongoing consent is needed, he said.

That's something the Inuvialuit have made clear the Vatican Museums does not have.

Ry Moran, the associate university librarian for reconciliation at the University of Victoria, says museums need to be transparent about what they hold and open to the return of materials if that’s what’s desired by a community. (Nardella Photography Inc./University of Victoria)

Canadian bishops willing to help

CBC News could not reach representatives of the Vatican by press time. However, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said, "with respect to this or other requests for the return of artifacts, the CCCB would be willing to assist in mediating that conversation with the Vatican."

Bishop Jon Hansen is the Catholic bishop of Mackenzie-Fort Smith, which includes the Inuvialuit Settlement Region. 

Jon Hansen is the bishop for the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith, home to Inuvialuit. He says if repatriating artifacts can be of help in reconciliation and healing, then it's a dialogue that needs to be entered into between Inuvialuit and the Vatican Museum. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

He said the reason the kayak and other artifacts previously in storage were brought out for display "was primarily so that the Pope could welcome the delegation coming to Rome this December." (The visit of Indigenous delegates to the Vatican was postponed on Tuesday because of concerns about the omicron variant of COVID-19.) 

Hansen said the exhibit was intended "to honour those people and to welcome them in a good way."

At a pre-delegation meeting, Indigenous delegates were told a tour of the exhibit featuring these artifacts was on their itinerary, he said.

"I know one woman travelling with the delegation from Tuktoyaktuk. She heard about the kayak at one of the pre-delegation meetings, and she was very much looking forward to seeing it," he said.

However, Hansen said, "if repatriating those artifacts can be of help in reconciliation and healing, then it's certainly a dialogue that needs to be entered into."

What might happen next?

Two things need to be taken into account, said Hansen, and the first is the people who created it.

"If it's definitely their wish that it be returned to them, I think that needs to be honoured and respected," Hansen said.

Both the Conference of Canadian Bishops and the Holy See have endorsed UNDRIP as a good way forward in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, he said.

Hansen also said the museum archivists have indicated a desire to hear from the communities who made the kayak and to restore it.

The Inuvialuit Regional Corporation said it wants an Inuvialuit kayak currently on display at the Vatican Museums in Rome returned. Emily Angulalik, pictured, executive director of Kitikmeot Heritage Society in Nunavut, said in some situations where an artifact could be damaged by transporting it, elders and knowledge keepers have been sent to view it and share their stories and experiences. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

But the second matter is the kayak itself, which is believed to be over 100 years old, said Hansen. Is transporting it without damaging it possible, and is there a place for it to reside when it comes to Canada where it will be looked after?

Emily Angulalik and Kim Crockatt, co-founders of Kitikmeot Heritage Society in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, have specialized knowledge of approaches to the repatriation of kayaks from experiences at their own museum.

"They're so very fragile," said Crockatt. 

'It's really complicated'

But there are others means of repatriation. In situations where it seems like an artifact could be damaged by transporting it again, elders and knowledge keepers have been sent overseas or down south to view an artifact and to share their stories and experiences with objects like it, said Angulalik.

Tommy Epakhoak, Dedre Maksagak, Jessie Apsaktaun and Ovide Alakannuaq rebuild an Inuinnait-style qajaq in 2009, using images and measurements from a 1914 qajaq stored at the Canadian Museum of History. (Submitted by Kitikmeot Heritage Society)

The Kitikmeot Heritage Society has created experiences where elders have returned to their communities and re-created a kayak in the traditional way based on what they saw and documented, said Crockatt. She said the museum has a couple on display as part of their collection. Other times, loans of objects have made sense, she said.

Everything from light levels to temperature controls to the type of windows in the space where the kayak will be displayed needs to be considered when bringing an object back, said Crockatt.

"It's really complicated," she said.

It's certainly possible that expertise and an appropriate space exist in the region, she said. 

Community members view a Kugluktuk qajaq repatriated to the Kitikmeot Heritage Society in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, in 2015. (Submitted by Kitikmeot Heritage Society)

CBC News was not able to reach a representative from Inuvialuit Regional Corporation by press time to find out what the plans are for the future home of the kayak. 

The corporation asked the Canadian government for assistance repatriating the kayak and other objects.

In a statement, Global Affairs Canada said, "We welcome frank exchanges between Indigenous leaders and the Vatican to advance ongoing efforts at reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, including the preservation and appropriate wardenship of Indigenous artifacts stored in the Vatican Museum."


Clara Pasieka is a CBC journalist and associate producer in Toronto. She has also worked in CBC's national bureau and as a reporter in the Northwest Territories, Ontario and New Brunswick. She holds a Masters degree in Public Policy, Law and Public Administration from York University.