Unreserved

How one museum is repatriating Indigenous belongings

When Lou-ann Ika'wega Neel moved from Alert Bay to Victoria at the age of seven, she started visiting the Royal B.C. Museum because it made her feel at home. The museum even houses some of her family's belongings. Today, Neel works at the museum as a repatriation specialist.
First Peoples Gallery, Royal B.C. Museum. (Royal B.C. Museum)
Listen15:15

When Lou-ann Ika'wega Neel moved from Alert Bay to Victoria at the age of seven, she started visiting the Royal B.C. Museum because it made her feel at home.

The museum houses some of her family's belongings. On the third floor is a replica of a Kwakwaka'wakw Bighouse, a space familiar to Neel who is from the Kwakwaka'wakw nation.

Today, Neel works at the museum as a repatriation specialist.

Neel is part of the museum's repatriation department and is working to help repatriate the thousands of Indigenous belongings and ancestral remains in the museum's collections.

To repatriate something is to return it to its place of origin, to give it back to the Nation and the people that it came from. Or, as Neel explained, "To me, repatriation is the return of precious belongings to their home communities."   

There's no requirement by anybody that 'thou shalt have a museum.'- Lou-ann Neel

Indigenous people across North America are working to return thousands of sacred objects and ancestral remains, belongings that were taken and put in museums, galleries, private collections, and universities.

As a repatriation specialist, Neel connects with Indigenous communities around British Columbia to support them through the process of returning their belongings.

Lou-ann Neel is a repatriation specialist with the Royal B.C. Museum. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Repatriation initiatives are on the rise in Canada and around the world. Repatriation is outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and it is considered an important part of reconciliation.

In February 2019, a new bill toward a national strategy for repatriation passed its third reading in the House of Commons, and moved on to the Senate.

But there is complexity to repatriation, to where belongings are housed once they are returned. There is no one model for what repatriation looks like, and that's important, explained Neel.

"There's no requirement by anybody that 'thou shalt have a museum.'"

"It's not the museum's place to direct the community on what they should do or where they should put things when they return," she said.

"These things need to be made right"

Neel is also an artist, and said it's important for Indigenous artists to learn from the Indigenous artworks stored in museums.

The significance of accessing Indigenous belongings in museum collections was brought home for Neel when she visited the Burke Museum in Seattle a couple of years ago. Neel was at the  museum to study a number of objects, among them was a carved rattle.

"And this rattle just seemed to keep calling to me," she recalled.

"At one point, I thought, 'You know, if I was going to carve a rattle I think I'd carved exactly like this."

"So, I asked the curator 'Can you get the information card and tell me who made this rattle?'" 

When the curator returned with the information, he told Neel that the rattled had been carved by John Neel.

"John Neel was my dad. And I actually never met my dad. He passed away before I got to know who he was," she said. 

Neel wants other artists to have the opportunity to connect with belongings made by their families and communities.

Repatriation specialist Lou-ann Neel. (Lou-ann Neel/Twitter)

"On the one hand I do like the idea of some of our pieces staying in museums. When I put on my museum hat, though, I look at our policies around access."

For Neel, it's important that community members have the ability to access their belongings.

When the belongings are ancestral remains, Neel knows the "immense feeling of relief" when ancestors are repatriated.

"How healing it is to for the community as a whole to know that their ancestors have returned home."

"Some of the struggles I think our people have is just the knowing that these things are elsewhere," she said. "These things need to be made right."

The Royal BC Museum and the Haida Gwaii Museum recently published the Indigenous Repatriation Handbook. It is available for free online to support communities and museums in the repatriation of belongings.