CBC In Depth
Aboriginal artifacts
Repatriating the past

CBC News Online | March 16, 2006

This 134-year-old totem pole will make its way back to Canada from Sweden. (AP Photo/Lars Epstein)
» CBC story: Native spirits soar as Sweden returns historic B.C. totem pole
For most Canadians, their first experience of aboriginal culture came through their local museum. Teachers would take their class on trips to the museum, where the kids could marvel at the distinctive beauty of the vast array of cultural objects on display: soul catchers, masks, charms, blankets, headdresses, drums, clothing, arrowheads, dugout canoes, and, of course, those amazing giant totem poles.

Many museums in Canada have huge collections of these cultural treasures. The pieces were acquired over the decades in a variety of ways: archeological digs, purchases directly from Aboriginal Peoples, purchases on the open market, donations from collectors, or they were gathered by missionaries and anthropologists. Most of the pieces have been acquired legally. But the origins of some ethnographic objects – especially those acquired long ago – are more dubious. And there's no doubt that some cultural artifacts wound up in institutions following their confiscation by governments of the distant past.

Some of the pieces on display have deep spiritual significance for particular First Nations groups. In the last few decades, some members of Canada's one million Aboriginal Peoples have demanded that culturally sensitive artifacts be returned to the communities where they originated. As one might imagine, the issue of repatriation is a touchy one for museums and other institutions that have large collections of aboriginal artifacts. But it is an issue that museums are starting to recognize and respond to.

Cultural artifacts are generally divided into two kinds – the secular and the sacred. Secular artifacts could include tools, arrowheads, everyday clothing. These are items that were used in day-to-day life. While interesting, they do not hold the same place as sacred objects like medicine bundles, totem poles, or other objects connected to special ceremonies or rituals. It is these objects that are often the ones that First Nations groups want returned. And part of their strong desire for their return relates to the circumstances under which they were taken in the first place.

History of repatriation efforts

If there is one issue that generates the most talk of repatriation, it is the artifacts connected with potlatch ceremonies. The potlatch was an elaborate ceremonial feast held by First Nations peoples up and down the Pacific coast of British Columbia.

It was in part a gift-giving ceremony where wealth got redistributed to visiting groups. Canada banned the potlatch ceremony in 1885 and arrested some who defied the ban. Potlatch artifacts were seized and many found their way into museums around the country and overseas. The earliest attempts at repatriation were addressed at these artifacts.

In 1978, the Canadian Museum of Civilization returned confiscated potlatch items to the Kwakwaka'wakw communities of Alert Bay and Cape Mudge. The federal government financed the construction of two museums to house the objects.

The issue of how aboriginal cultural items are displayed and interpreted got wide public attention in 1988, not at a museum, but at the Winter Olympics in Calgary. A cultural display called "The Spirit Sings" was meant to showcase Canada's rich aboriginal culture. But it was sponsored by an oil company that was involved in a land claims dispute with the Lubicon Lake Cree. The Lubicon asked museums not to lend artifacts to the display and asked people not to attend. That boycott led the Assembly of First Nations and the Canadian Museums Association to jointly tackle the issues raised by the dispute. Their recommendations addressed repatriation from a variety of perspectives, including the methods institutions used to acquire their artifacts. Its final report also recommended that Aboriginal Peoples have a greater role in how their history and culture is displayed.

Beginning in the 1980s, governments and aboriginal groups began to address repatriation or similar heritage issues in their land claims discussions. The first treaty to include specific and detailed provisions for repatriation came into effect in 2000. It is between the Nisga'a Nation of British Columbia, the province of British Columbia, and the government of Canada. The agreement spelled out dozens of Nisga'a artifacts that were to be returned to the Nisga'a Nation by the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Royal British Columbia Museum.

The state of current repatriation efforts

Museums housing some of the biggest collections of First Nations artifacts have developed formal policies on repatriation. These policies have sometimes been developed in consultation with representatives of aboriginal communities. And they have produced results.

The Canadian Museum of Civilization, for example, has returned wampun to the Six Nations Confederacy and has returned medicine bundles to Plains communities. Besides the Nisga'a Nation, the museum has also reached a repatriation agreement with the Labrador Inuit Association. It has also returned human remains to several First Nations.

The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto acknowledges in its repatriation policy that "some objects may have been acquired in circumstances which render the ROM's title invalid." It pledges to return these artifacts. The repatriation guidelines of UBC's Museum of Anthropology similarly acknowledge that, if it has objects that were illegally taken, they "should be returned."

Museums consider repatriation requests on a case-by-case basis. Part of the decision on whether to return artifacts rests on whether there is a proper place to display and care for them. If there is no such facility, a museum might sometimes agree to transfer title of the artifacts to the traditional aboriginal owners but will act as a caretaker and continue to house the objects under its own roof. Many First Nations groups are building their own facilities to house and display repatriated objects. Two federal programs support aboriginal museums.

It should be pointed out that none of the repatriation policies would result in the wholesale transfer of all aboriginal artifacts in museums to First Nations communities. And the First Nations aren't asking for that. As the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples put it, "Aboriginal people are not calling for museums to divest themselves of all aboriginal artifacts. … Items that have no sacred value, such as tools, can be kept and displayed with community consent." But the Commission took the position that "where repatriation is called for, museums must respect the wishes of the aboriginal community."

Hundreds of cultural objects have already been repatriated; hundreds or perhaps thousands more will likely head "home" as more land claims are ratified and more museums examine their collections.

Many cultural artifacts have also wound up outside Canada, as Canadian aboriginal artifacts are highly prized by foreign collectors. The Cultural Property Export and Import Act has been of some help in repatriating a few of these artifacts.

In the summer of 2006, a 135-year-old Haisla totem pole will finally return home to a community 600 kilometres northwest of Vancouver. The pole has been in a Swedish museum since 1929. Out of gratitude for Sweden's decision to voluntarily send it back, the Haisla sent four carvers to Sweden in 2005 to carve a replica they would leave behind.


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Total population of Canada: 31,414,000

Total people of aboriginal origin: 1,319,890


North American Indian:
More than one aboriginal origin:


People of aboriginal origin living on reserve: 285,625

People of aboriginal origin living off reserve: 1,034,260

People of non-aboriginal origin living on reserve: 36,230

(Source: 2001 Census, Statistics Canada)
*includes people of a single aboriginal origin and those of a mix of one aboriginal origin with non-aboriginal origins

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National Aboriginal Day (official website)

National Aboriginal Day by the Numbers, Statistics Canada

Gov. Gen. Rom´┐Żo LeBlanc's speech at Rideau Hall on June 13, 1996

Statistics Canada profile on aboriginal Canadians

Indian and Northern Affairs Canada

The Assembly of First Nations

Canadian Museums Association

Haisla Totem Pole Repatriation Project

Canadian Museum of Civilization Repatriation Policy

Sacred and Secular Artifacts - from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples

Metis National Council

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami

Native Women's Association of Canada

Congress of Aboriginal Peoples

Grand Council of the Crees

Treaties - Text

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