Nova Scotia

Mi'kmaw regalia to return home after more than a century at Australian museum

Several pieces of Mi'kmaw regalia that were donated to an Australian museum more than a century ago are being returned to Nova Scotia next month.

Pieces were donated to Melbourne museum in the late 1800s by a collector from Atlantic Canada

A blown-up image of a black embroidered jacket with red trim, embroidered mocassins and pouch, and a quill pipe.
Millbrook First Nation wants to repatriate historical Mi'kmaq items from storage at a museum in Australia. The First Nation only has images, displayed above, of the items in its possession. (Bill Casey)

Several pieces of Mi'kmaw regalia that were donated to an Australian museum more than a century ago will be returned to Nova Scotia next month.

Heather Stevens, the manager of the Millbrook Cultural and Heritage Centre, has been trying to get the regalia home since 2012, when she started working there. 

Stevens said at the time, she noticed the centre had a photo of the regalia — a men's jacket, moccasins, leggings, a pouch, a broach and a pipe — on display, rather than the actual items. 

She questioned why that was.

She eventually learned that the items were sitting in a drawer at Museums Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, so she contacted staff there in hopes of forming a connection.

Stevens said she spoke with the woman who managed the museum's Indigenous collections.

"Our focus [of the conversation] was on our culture, our heritage, everything that means something to us, because she was Indigenous herself," Stevens said Tuesday.

"It was just like a woman-to-woman connection and how much it means for us to have our history, where we can show it and appreciate it and have it so that people can see it for years to come."

Stevens hasn't been the only person to question why there was only a photo of the regalia at the centre.

A Mi'kmaw pipe crafted with wood and porcupine quills.
A pipe, which was included with the regalia, is made from wood and porcupine quills and features carved animals unique to the Mi'kmaq. (Submitted by Heather Stevens/Museums Victoria)

In 2018, Nova Scotia Liberal MP Bill Casey visited the cultural centre and saw the photo, which inspired him to draft Bill C-391, which called on the federal government to create a national strategy that includes a mechanism for Indigenous communities and organizations to repatriate cultural items.

"We have such a rich Indigenous history and it is so important for young Indigenous people to be able to see that," Casey said at the time.

How the items ended up in Melbourne

The regalia includes a beautifully embroidered jacket that is decorated with beadwork along the bottom, lapels, shoulders, cuffs and back. The moccasins and pouch have similar beadwork.

The pipe is made from wood and porcupine quills and features carved animals unique to the Mi'kmaq.

Stevens said there are still some questions about the regalia but it is believed to have been made by a Mi'kmaw artisan named Christina Morris, who lived somewhere between Millbrook and Shubenacadie, during the 1840s. 

Stevens said the regalia was commissioned by Samuel Huyghue, an Atlantic Canadian civil servant, writer and artist with a strong interest in Mi'kmaw culture.

 "In his mindset, he was thinking that the Mi'kmaw people were going to lose their ability to do their crafts, so he was going around collecting some things from the Mi'kmaw people to keep them safe," Stevens told CBC Radio's Mainstreet Halifax on Monday.

A pair of beaded mocassins.
A pair of beaded mocassins that are being repatriated to Nova Scotia from a museum in Melbourne, Australia. (Submitted by Heather Stevens/Museums Victoria)

Stevens said Huyghue left Nova Scotia with the regalia by the mid- to late 1800s and moved to England. 

He then traveled to Melbourne, Australia, where he died in 1891, and bequeathed the regalia to Museums Victoria. 

Stevens said she holds no ill will toward the museum or Huyghue because the regalia was well taken care of and is in "pristine condition."

"His intentions, I don't believe were ill," she said. "I think his intentions were to preserve and when he left it to Museum[s] Victoria, I don't think it was because he didn't think we deserved it, I think it was because of his inability to get it back to Nova Scotia."

Why it took so long to repatriate

Stevens said the repatriation of the regalia has been a long time coming. 

She said the Melbourne museum had to be sure the Millbrook centre had adequate resources and equipment to safely display and care for the items.

It also required extensive paperwork, and discussions about why the regalia should be repatriated to Nova Scotia.

She said after the museum's side was sorted, it also took a lot of talks with the federal government to secure funding for equipment, flights, accommodations and insurance.

Several pieces of Mi’kmaw regalia that were donated to an Australian museum more than a century ago are being returned to Nova Scotia next month. Guest host Preston Mulligan spoke with Heather Stevens, the manager of the Millbrook Cultural and Heritage Centre.

Stevens will be travelling to Melbourne in March to retrieve the items. She will be accompanied by De-Anne Sack, a Mi'kmaw pipe carrier, who will be performing ceremonies before the items leave Melbourne and when they return to Nova Scotia.

She said it's hard to believe that the items are finally coming home after so many years away, and 11 years of working toward this.

"It isn't me that's regaining it, it's our Mi'kmaw people having a piece of our history back," she said.

"I am happy to be able to be that person that can bring it back to our people."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cassidy Chisholm

Digital journalist

Cassidy Chisholm is a digital journalist with CBC News in Nova Scotia. She was previously based at CBC New Brunswick. You can reach her at cassidy.chisholm@cbc.ca

With files from CBC Radio's Mainstreet Nova Scotia

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