When multiple First Nations lay claim to ancient Indigenous remains, how does repatriation get sorted?

Communities in Quebec and Ontario are grappling with that question as they look to have dozens, in some cases hundreds, of remains or artifacts returned.

'We want to see them reburied but what we need is consensus,' says Montreal's Indigenous affairs commissioner

Kahnawake’s old Catholic cemetery is a protected site in the community where repatriated remains are interred. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

What happens when multiple First Nations lay claim to ancient Indigenous remains that are held by Canada's museums and governments?

That's the struggle communities in Quebec and Ontario have to grapple with as they look to have dozens, in some cases hundreds, of remains or artifacts returned.

For the Mohawk community of Kahnawake, on Montreal's south shore, the future of eight sets of remains are in limbo as discussions between the city of Montreal, Mohawk Councils of Kahnawake, Kanesatake, Akwesasne, the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council, and Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador have been stalled for nearly a year.

The Mohawk Council of Kahnawake reached out to the city in 2018, asking for the remains to be buried in the community, located near Montreal. By June of that year, Montreal's commissioner of Indigenous affairs Marie-Ève Bordeleau said the city created a committee, opening up dialogue to other surrounding Mohawk and Algonquin communities. 

"These ancestors date back 4,000 to 6,000 years ago, and there's no way to identify which nation they're from. This is why Montreal, when we started the discussions, we wanted to be inclusive of everyone," said Bordeleau.

"Kahnawake was the first one to ring the bell, but for us it's important to be inclusive of the possible descendants of these ancestors."

Bordeleau said the committee has yet to reach consensus on where to bury the remains.

"What we want are the four communities to tell us where they want the bones to be reburied. The city has no will on keeping these ancestors. We want to see them reburied but what we need is consensus," she said.

"We really want to rebury the bones this spring or summer."

'They don't belong on shelves'

For Ross Montour, a council chief at the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, the issue isn't about whether the remains can be clearly identified as Mohawk, or another First Nation. 

"It's not for non-Indigenous archeologists or politicians to decide what the appropriate way to deal with human remains is. It's ours," said Montour.

The remains include that of a woman unearthed in 2017 at the corner of Peel and Sherbrooke streets in an archeological field school with McGill University, the remains of a woman and child unearthed during excavations when the Museum Étienne Nivard de Saint-Dizier in the Verdun area of the city was being renovated in 2006, as well as two adults and three children in graves found during construction on Queen Mary Road in 2007.

"They don't belong on shelves," said Montour.

"The concern about human remains is a spiritual concern. We have a duty to address and speak for those ancestors in a way that brings them back to peace."

Having the remains repatriated in a respectful manner isn't impossible, said Montour. In January, the remains of a teenage girl and baby that were in the possession of the Roussillon Archeology Museum in LaPrairie, Que. were repatriated to Kahnawake for final interment.

Ross Montour is a council chief at the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, and holds the files for heritage, as well as Indigenous rights and research. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

The museum had had the remains since 2014, but Frédéric Hottin, archeologist and head of collections at the museum, said it didn't have the resources until last summer to begin the process of repatriating them to the appropriate community. 

"The approach we had — it was a very simple one and also responsible one: They're not artifacts," he said.

"They don't they don't belong in a museum; they belong with the communities, their people."

Hottin said museums and institutions need to change their outlook on viewing remains as artifacts, and rather view issues around repatriation as a responsibility to reconciliation. 

Serpent Mounds repatriation stalled

The Michi Saagig of Hiawatha First Nation have been working for several years on the repatriation of about 200 ancestral remains and ancestral artifacts removed from the Serpent Mounds national historic site, about 150km northeast of Toronto.

The park is home to ancient burial mounds that date back about 2,000 years. There are 10 mounds in total. The largest is 60 metres long and 8 metres wide, shaped like a snake, that contains the remains of 150-200 individuals. It's surrounded by eight smaller round mounds, each containing the remains of between 50 and 80 individuals.

The site was excavated in the late 1950s by an archeologist affiliated with the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). Hiawatha First Nation has been wanting the ancestral remains and artifacts that are at the ROM repatriated for decades, although the formal process was only started a few years ago. 

Richard Johnston's excavation at Serpent Mounds, near Peterborough, Ont., took place from 1957-1960. (Royal Ontario Museum)

While the First Nation received approval to have the remains and items from the mounds returned, not everything from the park is included.

Near the mounds, three burial pits were also excavated. The Huron-Wendat nation has made a claim to the remains and artifacts removed from the pits.

Chief Laurie Carr of Hiawatha First Nation says this has stalled the repatriation process.

"It's very frustrating that our ancestors are still sitting at the ROM because Huron-Wendat believe that they have claims to them and there's no archeological proof of any Huron-Wendat villages in our area," said Carr.

"There are a few sites around Rice Lake that are said to be Huron-Wendat, however they need to be substantiated." 

Carr said the Huron Wendat haven't come forward to meet with them, "which leaves us stuck."

There are ten mounds in total at Serpent Mounds national historic site, the largest being 60 metres long and shaped like a serpent. (Royal Ontario Museum)

"If they really cared about the ancestors they should be having discussions with us and they're not."

The Conseil de la Nation Huronne-Wendat did not respond to a request for comment. 

The Royal Ontario Museum declined to comment.

The ROM's board policy regarding repatriation of Indigenous human remains says "The ROM will not arbitrarily decide contested cases, i.e., cases in which more than one Indigenous group claim the same ancestors."