Indigenous

British eBay hobbyist called grave robber for selling 'Métis' items

Helen Pengelly didn't expect the hate mail she received after posting a medicine bag, feather and stick to eBay purportedly taken from a "Métis chief's" grave near Batoche, Sask., in 1885.

Helen Pengelly bought items during an auction believing they were from the Far East

Helen Pengelly, who lives in the U.K., received hate mail after posting this item on eBay. (Helen Pengelly/eBay)

Helen Pengelly didn't expect the hate mail she received after posting a medicine bag, feather and stick to eBay purportedly taken from a "Métis chief's" grave near Batoche, Sask., in 1885.

The 64-year-old resident of Melksham, England, said she initially thought Batoche was somewhere in the Far East because the items were part of collection put up for auction in September by Wessex Auction Rooms that were primarily oriental in origin.

"It was mostly oriental, Chinese-type things," said Pengelly, in a telephone interview Monday. "There is a paper that has been torn in half that says it's a medicine bag from a chief's grave near Batoche in 1885. I was thinking it was going to be in the East and it turned out it was West of here."

Pengelly was also surprised by the reaction triggered by the items after she posted them on the online auction site on Saturday. Pengelly said she received several messages through eBay calling her "despicable" and accusing her of being a grave robber.

"Being a 64-year-old woman, I am not really used to this sort of thing," she said. "To me, all I am doing is making a little bit of money, I didn't think it was going to go mad like this…. I didn't rob the grave, for heaven's sake, and it wasn't anyone in my family."

Items may not be Métis

The items are not likely from any of the Battle of Batoche graves, but likely from one of the nearby First Nations of One Arrow or Beardy's and Okemasis, said Métis poet Greg Scofield, who is an English professor at Laurentian University in Sudbury and an avid artifact collector.

Most of the men who fought against the Canadians at the 1885 Battle of Batoche were older Métis, Roman Catholic men, making it unlikely there would be a medicine bundle on their graves, he said.

"It could have been an item left by a family on a particular chief's grave because those communities are so close to Batoche," said Scofield. "Because those communities are so close, it could have been attributed to Batoche because of that."

Robert Doucette, former president of the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan, said he also believes the items are from First Nations neighbouring Batoche, adding he was upset to see the items up for bid on eBay.

"This is another example of what happened during the 17,18, 1900s," said Doucette. "People that were working for governments appropriated and took them from the Métis and First Nations people back to Europe," said Doucette. "It's another sad day for First Nations and Métis people. Here's a significant item that is being sold by a private collector…. Why doesn't she just give it back to them? Why doesn't she contact the One Arrow band and say, 'I got this stuff here?'"

Pengelly was surprised by the hate mail she received after posting a medicine bag, feather and stick to eBay purportedly taken from a 'Métis chief's' grave. (Courtesy of Helen Pengelly)
 

As of this article's posting, the items had received 12 bids and the price was up to $44.47.

Pengelly said she planned to keep the item up for auction and expected it would be sold to someone in Canada. 

"My hobby is buying general items from auctions and selling them on eBay," she said. "I can't walk a lot nowadays. I am stuck at home, so it's something to do which is better than buying clothes, shoes or handbags."

The 1885 Battle of Batoche was the pivotal battle in the North-West Rebellion which saw Canadian forces battle a Métis-Indigenous resistance.

About the Author

Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him jorge.barrera@cbc.ca.

With files from Lenard Monkman

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