Indigenous

Royal Ontario Museum to return human remains and artifacts removed from burial mounds

Artifacts, sacred objects and the remains of ancestors will soon be returned to Rainy River First Nations from the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, where they have been stored for more than 30 years.

'I'm excited about bringing them back home,' says Rainy River First Nations council member

Rainy River First Nations owns and operates the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre. The area is home to one of the largest concentrations of Indigenous burial mounds in North America, some of which are over 2,000 years old. (Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre)

Artifacts, sacred objects and the remains of ancestors will soon be returned to Rainy River First Nations from the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, where they have been stored for more than 30 years.

The Anishinaabe community in Northwestern Ontario is home to one of the largest known concentrations of burial mounds, located along the Rainy River. They were excavated and studied in the 1950s-1970s by Walter Kenyon, a curator at the ROM.

Now the Rainy River First Nations and the ROM are in talks to return approximately 4,000 artifacts, including human remains.

"It's our history. It's who we are," said Shawn Brown, a Rainy River First Nations council member.

The Rainy River First Nations comprise seven Anishinaabe bands that lived along the Rainy River, which they call Manidoo Ziibo (Spirit River). The site where the mounds are is called Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung, which means 'the Place of the Long Rapids.'

Kayleigh Speirs, Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung administration manager, and Shawn Brown, Rainy River First Nations council member, both say they're excited to see thousands of artifacts returned to the community. (Will McGinnis)

The repatriation process is still in the planning stages and the community is working with the ROM to figure out logistics of how to safely transport the artifacts and where they will go. The hope is to return the artifacts next spring or summer.

The site where the original mound was excavated is now privately owned and finding a safe spot for them within the community is a process.

"I'm excited about bringing them back home and having them back where they belong," said Brown.

"I don't think many communities that have artifacts and even ancestors in these museums know that they can actually go and talk to them and ask them if they are from our community."

Removed for study and not returned

Indigenous burial mounds are found across North America and many were excavated in the 19th and 20th centuries, with artifacts and remains removed for examination. Often what was removed was not returned.

"In the past these communities were often promised when these archeologists came in that they would get this amazing information," said Kayleigh Speirs, administration manager of the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre in Stratton, Ont.  

But often the information gathered wasn't brought back to the communities, she said.

"Now this does give the opportunity — if communities are interested in getting any of that knowledge — it gives them that potential."

Opportunity for new project

In December 2016, several Elders and representatives from the Rainy River First Nations approached Craig Cipolla, the ROM's curator of North American Archeology, to discuss the possibility of repatriation.

The Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre is located along the north shore of the Rainy River. (Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre)

A formal request was then submitted to the ROM's board of directors, which was approved and opened the lines of communication between the communities and the museum to figure out the best approach to repatriation.

"I'm really excited not only to to get things back where they need to go but to be asking your questions in new ways," said Cipolla.

It has presented an opportunity for a new community-led project, which the museum representatives say will include consultation with Elders.

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