Making Amends

How reforming museum practices is helping revive aboriginal spirituality.

How should a public institution behave when some of its core values and procedures are challenged by the communities it is intended to serve? And should this behaviour be different if the institution has a purely cultural mandate, operating in a not-for-profit manner? The recent history of Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, and other museums in Canada and abroad, gives some guidance on these difficult questions.

Collections of artifacts are at the heart of museums; this is what makes them different from other cultural institutions. Often, their holdings consist of one-of-a-kind objects that are preserved for the public good. Research on what the artifacts tell us about the past is essential to this trust, the core reason for the study of material history.

Access to artifacts and interpretations of what they signify is also a basic museum role. Activities of exhibition and explanation have grown in public importance in recent decades. As one product of the boom in cultural tourism, museums and their collections have become central to thoughtful entertainment and experiential learning. Again, the essential value projected by the institutions is their authenticity and trustworthiness.

But what if that public trust is put into question? This can happen in many ways. Some artifacts (notably art works) may be shown to be fakes. Pressures from private funders and government authorities may subvert independent thinking. Or, more radically, some groups may challenge the authority of a museum to possess whole classes of objects.

This last type of challenge has become more prominent in Canada and elsewhere because of the importance of aboriginal-origin pieces within many museum collections. Specifically, should museums continue to hold artifacts such as human skeletal remains, related burial goods or spiritually significant objects even if these were originally obtained through legitimate field research and transactions?

In other words, museums have become arenas for a conflict between two sets of societal values. The first is the liberal intellectual value placed on the creation, preservation and sharing of knowledge. The second is the contemporary social value that stresses respect for diverse ethno-religious identities and practices. What if an ethnic group—specifically, an aboriginal group—demands that objects in a museum be returned from a public collection to the private use of that group? Should the public trust reflected in the museum override or be subordinated to the wishes of a particular community? Whose values should prevail? And how should inevitable conflicts be resolved?

We Are Coming Home: Repatriation and the Restoration of Blackfoot Cultural Confidence, a collection of essays and memoirs edited by Gerald Conaty, shares insights gained from the experience of the Glenbow, which also involved the Alberta provincial government and several activists in Blackfoot First Nations communities. Until his recent death, Conaty was a highly respected anthropologist and curator. Together with Robert Janes, the Glenbow’s director in the 1990s, who took over this publishing project after Conaty’s death, he formulated a positive response to Blackfoot tribal representatives who sought the return of objects considered sacred in their cultural traditions.

Events and arguments in this book are presented from the differing perspectives of curators, administrators and community activists. The overall impact is deeply informative and readable, with scarcely any museological jargon or polemics from post-colonial cultural theorists.

Conaty sets out his central themes—to present “a significant record of cultural survival and persistence”—in four essays that are both scholarly and personal. He describes how museums in western countries have played important roles in collecting and displaying materials from other societies and cultures. In a North American setting, with indigenous peoples enduring so many pressures, “museums came to be regarded by some as suitable repositories for items that seemed no longer to have purpose or meaning.”

Field research in the early 20th century by both amateurs and scholars focused on collecting, recording and observing—a process that was sometimes called salvage ethnography. While this gave an aura of idealism to activities that were not always altruistic or scholarly, it became essential to preservation at a time when the multiple effects of economic change, diseases, migration and settlement had shocked and demoralized aboriginal peoples.

But such collecting and preservation activities also conveyed haughty moral conclusions. Museums fed a public nostalgia for a romanticized past while also asserting judgements about which societies were more competent and competitive. In their application of social Darwinism, museum curators echoed other types of scholarship that enhanced a Eurocentric sense of superiority. They also conveniently reinforced their authority to describe the functions and meanings of aboriginal practices, and to deny the validity of community self-representation, which they criticized as unscholarly and unobjective.

The Glenbow in Calgary and the Provincial Museum of Alberta in Edmonton were founded in the mid 1960s; both are very young by the standards of world museums. At the outset, they inherited the attributes of older museum traditions. But a combination of precipitating events, wider social forces and forward-looking responses by both museum curators and political leaders led to a rapid evolution in attitudes and practices. This reflected a shifting cultural landscape throughout much of North America, defined by a greater openness to community participation, more respect for diversity and a growing awareness of the endemic effects of racism. In Alberta and elsewhere, perhaps the most important factors for change were the initiatives of individual aboriginal activists who wanted to recover past cultural traditions while also asserting economic claims.

Conaty’s essays explore how many of these museum changes came about. His personal style coloured his professional outlook. He had been recruited to the Glenbow in 1990 with a mandate to build new relationships with aboriginal communities. He had observed that in traditional museums the “voices of minorities were conspicuously absent, thus excluding Indigenous perspectives.” Together with Janes and other members of the staff, he was ready to show how museum experts could also listen and learn, “relinquishing power and authority” as elders from First Nations communities explained their views and experiences.

Aboriginal requests for the return of “sacred bundles” had particularly important spiritual significance to families and communities. Such bundles are more than physical objects: they are believed to possess living powers that reflect the origins of peoples and their unique capabilities. The care of such bundles is related to the spiritual health of the community, essential to rituals, celebrations, transmission of knowledge and intergenerational relations. The loss of sacred objects had occurred during the lowest points in the spiritual and economic destruction of various Blackfoot clans. Requests for their repatriation could become a turning point in the rebirth of spirituality and social healing. “The repatriation of sacred material … is a story of hope and perseverance,” Conaty writes. “The bundles bring with them these feelings of strength and well-being.”

The path to creating a new approach on repatriation was not smooth. A range of people raised resistance and questions. How do we know what is spiritually valid today, taking into account the rise of Christianity and other religions? How would these bundles be handled, given the breakdown of past traditions for care and protection? Would bundles taken from museums simply be sold to private collectors? Surely the best hope for preservation would be within public institutions that could care for the objects in a respectful, neutral manner?

Political leadership at the highest level, notably by Premier Ralph Klein, resolved some difficult questions. John Ives, the former deputy director at the Provincial Museum, describes in his essay how an informal process emerged during the 1980s to enable the lending of sacred materials to communities and ceremonial authorities. But this practice needed a firmer footing for consistency and transparency because both Alberta museums were lending “more and more bundles, pipes, and other artifacts to Blackfoot communities,” says Ives. “These objects were re-entering active Blackfoot ceremonial life.”

Debate arose regarding the future of loans and whether museums had the legal authority to permanently transfer ownership of objects. Klein personally intervened and, in a dramatic ceremony, he announced a commitment for special legislation to repatriate more than 250 sacred and ceremonial objects. The law came into effect in 2004.

In the experiences described by Ives, the building of consensus through discussions within the various Blackfoot communities was essential. In turn, the transfers of objects had far-reaching consequences because “museum possession of sacred ceremonial objects actively impeded the collective conduct of Blackfoot ceremonial life.” The change in ownership and the subsequent care and nurturing of these spiritual bundles became an example of “a government yielding and a First Nations assuming a responsibility of paramount cultural significance.”

Ives’s impressions are written from the standpoint of a sympathetic administrator. However, among the most interesting chapters in the book are those that recount the stories of five community activists in the Blackfoot Confederacy. In the tradition of first-hand oral histories, they describe their personal involvement with repatriations and rebuilding of cultural traditions. There are differences in tone and explanations but, not surprisingly, many common themes.

Herman Yellow Old Woman, from the Siksika Nation, recalled the need for renewal that began in the late 1970s, at a low ebb in community life: “We realized that it was getting to a point where it was going to be very difficult to continue our traditional ways,” he remembered. The need to begin spiritual rebuilding during those saddest days is repeated by many activists, and is linked to their goal of overcoming social breakdown.

Related to this is the search for spiritual meaning that feels authentic. For example, Allan Pard from Piikani Nation and an early leader of the Oldman River Cultural Centre, recalled how most of his generation had attended residential schools and were taught “not to go” in the direction of their traditional cultures. But gradually they came to believe “that our ways were more positive and meaningful to us as First Nations people than anything the Christian beliefs had to offer.”

Pard and others also stressed the need to re‑create the protocols for the holding, caring and transfer of ceremonial bundles during “this infant stage of reviving our culture.” Similarly, there was a need to build consensus around the handling of sacred materials, respecting their importance as carriers of traditional knowledge. Unity and consensus are never assured, as Jerry Potts from Piikani explained: “we always have opposition, no matter what we do. Perhaps it is just part of life on a reserve where some family grudges go back four generations.”

The most common theme among these elder ceremonial leaders is their confidence in the wider positive impacts that can flow from repatriation. “It is a repatriation of a way of life that was taken away from us through residential schools and all those other efforts to assimilate us,” argued Frank Weasel Head in his chapter on the Kanai Nation. He described other achievements in community renewal: improved local health services and education, new irrigation projects in agriculture and better child care, all of which he linked to the confidence and self-esteem that flow from caring for traditional spiritual bundles.

Together, these personal memoirs form an impressive testimony. Of course, this is what they are intended to do, as they are written from the shared viewpoints of a group of cultural and community activists who became heartfelt missionaries for the revival of spiritual traditions. More generally, this revival is a marker along the road of cultural rebirth within aboriginal nations across the country.

If we look at these issues from a broader perspective, I would suggest that, just as the practice of multicultural understanding here is so different from what is found in Western Europe, Canadian museum actions now differ markedly from the ethnocentrism of European institutions, where even the word “repatriation” elicits shudders from people who cannot imagine the validity of institutions deferring to communities and individuals. This is a unique achievement. It reflects a growing participation of First Nations’ communities in Canadian life and an evolution in our social and legal norms. Museums reflect these changes, treating aboriginal narratives, artifacts and art as part of the living present, not only as topics from the historical past. Repatriation of certain sensitive objects is a concrete expression of these changing values.

This volume focuses solely on part of the Alberta experience; it is not the wider story of Canadian museum repatriations and the building of different cultural relationships. For example, the first return of a major museum collection occurred in 1978, when the Potlatch collection at the National Museum of Man (later renamed the Museum of Civilization, and now the Museum of History) was returned to two British Columbia institutions, the U’mista Cultural Centre at Alert Bay and the Kwagiulth Museum at Cape Mudge. Since then, there have been numerous returns in Canada, and museum policies on the holding and display of human remains and related burial goods have been changed entirely. Although some observers have criticized museum leaders for moving too hesitantly, in fact the changes to policies and practices in Canada have been profound.

A combination of education and training has led to a generation of expert curators of aboriginal origins being employed at museums. Consultation and involvement in the creation of exhibitions and explanations is now the norm; it is inconceivable that any credible public institution in Canada would hold an exhibition on an aboriginal topic without such involvement. Social and secular artifacts from aboriginal sources remain an essential part of national and regional collections.

Equally important, the development of community-based cultural centres and enhanced relationships within aboriginal settings has progressed mightily. Procedures for the care of spiritually sensitive items are essential. As Andrea Laforet, a former director of ethnology at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, explained to an Australian audience regarding the ongoing impact of repatriation in community development:

We often speak of repatriation as a singular event. In fact, the transfer from museum to originating society is a threshold event in the biography of objects … For a repatriation to be successful, the material must re-enter the originating society in a way that makes cultural sense, is sustainable financially, and allows for a developing resonance.

The challenge in Canada, in this field as in many others, is to understand these constructive developments for ourselves. An absence of Canadian texts in the museum field and in cultural communications leaves open the mistaken idea that we are mere ciphers for practices from abroad. By making an important Alberta story available in this fascinating and important volume, AU Press has performed an essential cultural service for all Canadians.