Indigenous

Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation seeks to repatriate more than 100 cultural objects from Smithsonian

A central Alberta First Nation is beginning the lengthy and complicated process of repatriating more than 100 cultural objects from the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. 

Hair bundles and eagle feather headdresses among objects collected in 1920s

Representatives of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation greet belongings at the National Museum of the American Indian's Cultural Resources Center. (Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, History and Archives)

A central Alberta First Nation is beginning the lengthy and complicated process of repatriating more than 100 cultural objects from the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. 

Last week, a small contingent from the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, located about 80 kilometres west of Edmonton, travelled to the museum and its cultural resources centre to greet the belongings and open discussions with museum officials. 

Liz Letendre, director of history and archives for the Alexis Nakota, said she made a vow to bring the 118 objects home after learning about them from a relative of a community member who had seen them on display. 

Among the objects are about a dozen hair bundles, which are beaded bags containing pieces of hair from deceased loved ones. They are to be cared for by the deceased's successors and are incorporated into seasonal ceremonies. 

"I know how the connection to these bundles are to people," said Letendre.  

"Somebody's missing their relative and I know how that feels." 

Liz Letendre is the director of history and archives for the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Other objects include earned adornments such as eagle feather headdresses, beaded jackets and bear claw necklaces, and items used in prayer, including pipes and whistles. 

According to museum records, they were collected by Donald Cadzow in the 1920s from what was then the Wabamun reserve, which would have then included the Paul First Nation as well. 

Terry Snowball, the museum's repatriation co-ordinator, said there was a "much wider swath in terms of where and who he was collecting from."

Letendre said she was shown a document from the museum indicating about 300 other objects in its collection that came from Alberta. 

A catalogue entry from the National Museum of the American Indian shows some detail of a bear claw necklace in storage that is traceable back to the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation. (National Museum of the American Indian and Scott Neufeld/CBC)

An accompanying list indicates how much Cadzow paid for each item, although Letendre said much of it was priceless even 100 years ago. 

Snowball noted that many communities were under economic stress at that time and cultural practices had been demonized. 

"There were both licit and illicit means of acquisition that were conducted — even graverobbing," Snowball said.

"The collection from that standpoint has a number of, for lack of a better word, 'deficiencies of information.'" 

Terry Snowball is the repatriation co-ordinator at the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of the American Indian. (Submitted by Terry Snowball )

While the United States has the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Canada does not have similar legislation. A private member's bill was introduced during the last parliament, but died on the order paper when Parliament was dissolved before the federal election. 

Snowball, with both paternal and maternal tribal affiliations himself, said he empathizes with groups seeking the return of their belongings as he works with them to uphold the museum's repatriation policy. 

The process typically takes years to complete. Objects need to have proven linkages to lineal descendents or distinct affiliations with communities via practices and locale. Those details need to be demonstrable in a formal claim. 

University of Alberta anthropology professor Andie Palmer is working with the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation on the repatriation process, which is already becoming expensive. Palmer recently filed a grant application and expects there will be many more to come. 

The University of Alberta's Kule Institute for Advanced Research provided funds to support the travel of seven members of Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation to Washington, through a research grant partnership between university researchers and Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation partners.

Palmer said belongings can circulate widely and there are Nakota, Lakota and Dakota peoples in both Canada and the United States who are related. 

Chief Tony Alexis of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation says he understands why repatriation requires so much bureaucracy. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation Chief Tony Alexis said that although the bureaucracy can feel frustrating, especially early on, he understands the need for it. 

"There are so many people who are looking after it, so many institutions who are protecting it. And that's very good," Alexis said. 

"If there are communities that are trying to repatriate, be patient. Work with all the institutions and work with your community and eventually through that, you'll get them back home."

About the Author

Roberta Bell is a reporter with CBC News in Edmonton.