The Current

'These pieces are part of us': Repatriating belongings and remains stolen from Indigenous peoples

Some First Nations are working to repatriate sacred items and ancestral remains that were stolen and put in museums around the world — and they’re succeeding.

Belongings represent lineage and thousands of years of history, says Haida woman

On the left, a repatriated birchbark basket on display in the Sncewips Heritage Museum in West Kelowna, B.C. On the right, a repatriated Haida carving that was on display at the Haida Gwaii Museum in Skidegate, B.C. (Submitted by Sncewips Heritage Museum, Jags Brown)

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When Jisgang Nika Collison sat down with the chair of the American Museum of Natural History's committee in 2002 about repatriating some of the Haida First Nations' belongings, she was initially met with ignorance. 

"They [were] saying things like 'I don't know why you all had to come here. We could have just sent them home. They're just bones,'" she told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

But to Collison and other members of the Haida Repatriation Committee, they weren't just bones. They were the belongings and remains of 48 of their ancestors, stolen from them decades ago and sold to museums and private buyers.

"In the Haida world, the artistic expression contained within these belongings represent lineage and thousands and thousands and thousands of years of history, and incredible geographic events and relationships to our mainland relatives," she said.

"On a personal and spiritual note, these pieces are part of us."

A Haida chest replica that's on display at the Haida Gwaii Museum. The replica was created by Jaalen and Gwaai Edenshaw. The original is in the American Museum of Natural History. (Rolf Bettner)

For more than 20 years, Collison and the Haida Repatriation Committee — of which she's the co-chair — have been working to bring home the stolen belongings and remains of their ancestors.

Collison says the remains of more than 500 relatives have been returned to the First Nation in the decades since they first embarked on this mission.

"It's an incredible process, and it takes everyone — community fundraising, grant writing, [and] huge community engagement," she said.

A new understanding 

But repatriation was far from an easy process, and many museums were unwilling to return the belongings to the Indigenous peoples.

"For probably the first 15 years of this work, the mainstream museums could apply their laws and their policies and say, 'Well, we don't have this' or 'Our policy doesn't allow this,'" Collison said.

Jisgang Nika Collison, the co-chair of the Haida Repatriation Committee, said the committee has repatriated the remains of more than 500 relatives since they started their mission decades ago. (Submitted by Jisgang Nika Collison)

But Indigenous leaders weren't ready to give up. They shared their own Indigenous values and laws, and made it clear they wanted those values to be considered in discussions too.

"We said, 'Well, your law won't work for you, but we have a law that can work for both of us,' and we found ways around it," she said.

One such way was through food burning and feasts, all done to honour the First Nations' ancestors. These ceremonies were important to Collison and her committee members, and they made that clear in their meeting with the representatives from the American Museum of Natural History.

This is an opportunity for museums to participate in community healing and be part of that healing...-Jordan Coble

Despite the museum's initial concerns, a food burning ceremony was set up near Central Park.

Collison said the ceremony was not only a chance to feed her ancestors, but it also gave the museum's committee a chance to "share in our experiences, our joy, our grief, our pain [and] our wonder."

"And by the end of the process, they said … get your group to smuggle food into the museum. We're going to have a secret feast in the back halls of the anthropology room," she said. "And we had this feast and we were all together and it was great."

Even the museum committee's chair was touched by the proceedings, so much so that the next morning — after the two groups had already said their goodbyes — she rode on the bus that carried the remains from the museum to Collison's hotel.

"They said, 'I couldn't let the ancestors come over by themselves.' So it went from 'these are just bones' … to her visceral shift in understanding of the world," Collison said.

Listening to Indigenous peoples

Jordan Coble, who is the chair of the British Columbia Museums Association's Indigenous advisory committee, said there's now more encouragement for non-Indigenous peoples to participate and support the repatriation process than there was before.

It's an incredible process, and it takes everyone — community fundraising, grant writing, [and] huge community engagement."​​​​​-Jisgang Nika Collison

"It's not 100 per cent consensus across the board … but there's way more interest, there's way more support, and there's way more understanding that this isn't a burden for First Nation communities to undergo," he said.

Chief Bill Cranmer of 'Namgis First Nation, pictured here in 1999. A century after his First Nation was forced to give up items used in then-illegal potlatch ceremonies, he says most museums and private buyers are willing to return them. (Submitted by U'mista Cultural Centre)

It's not just about acknowledging the attempts by Indigenous people to repatriate their belongings, though. Coble, who's also a councillor for the Westbank First Nation, said it's important for museums to be mindful about about the bigger historical picture.

According to Coble, the key to progress and successful repatriation is for non-Indigenous museums to understand the true stories and histories of Indigenous peoples. 

"The way we understand how Canada or North America came to be is only part of the complete story," he said.

"This is an opportunity for museums to participate in community healing and be part of that healing, and then become part of that community by sharing the work that's been done over the years."

And success stories — of museums and private owners returning stolen belongings to Indigenous people — aren't rare. Take Chief Bill Cranmer and 'Namgis First Nation, for example.

Around a century after their chiefs were forced to give up masks and other items used in then-illegal potlatch ceremonies, Cranmer said most institutions are willing to return the items to the First Nation after learning about their history.

"Even the British Museum returned a mask to us under a long-term loan, even though they're not supposed to return anything to anyone because it's against British law," he told The Current.

Of course, Collison said there's still a long way to go to address systemic racism.

Yet, despite the difficult work, it's outcomes like the one she experienced from that first tough meeting in New York 19 years ago that keep Collison going.

"That story I go back to over and over when I'm hitting walls or dealing with harmful words or acts," she said.


Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Matt Meuse. 

Corrections

  • An earlier caption for the second photo in this story stated that it depicted repatriated Haida art on display at the Haida Gwaii Museum. In fact, it is a replica on display.
    Dec 07, 2021 4:29 PM ET

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