Museum Curios or Objects of Spiritual Healing?

Two days ago,  I suggested that the Vancouver Museum seriously consider repatriating a petroglyph-covered boulder in its collections to the tribal group in whose territory it was found.  The art on the boulder appears to be deteriorating badly in the museum courtyard as moss and water erode the stone,  obliterating figures that were clear as a bell in the 1930s.  I argued that repatriation would be a good solution to this problem,  for I believe that tribal group in question would have a much greater interest in taking care of the art.

But there’s also a moral argument to be made here.  I don’t think that national, provincial or city museums are the right places for objects of great spiritual importance to aboriginal peoples,  objects that still have a tremendous meaning today. These items, in my opinion,  really need to go back to the tribal group from which they came.   Imagine the outcry,  for example,  if an Egyptian museum held part of the manger of Christ in its collections and would not return it to the Vatican on request?

My views on this matter were strongly shaped by an experience I had while I was working for what is now the Royal Museum of Alberta back in the 1970s.  At the time, the museum held a collection of sacred medicine bundles once owned by healers and spiritual leaders in the Blackfoot Confederacy,  the Niitsitapi.

The museum bought the bundles back in a time when residential schools and other modern ills had badly eroded the traditional culture of the Niitsitapi.   But in the 1970s,  a few people in these tribes were actively reviving traditional spiritual practices.  They wanted their bundles back, because these sacred objects were absolutely essential to age-old spiritual practices.  The museum, however,  stubbornly refused to part with them.

Finally,  however,  four members of the Kainai Nation (part of the Niitsitapi) arrived at the museum one spring day and asked if they could take the Longtime Medicine Pipe Bundle  outdoors for prayer,  as was tradition.  As a young research assistant,  I watched them carry the bundle out past the security cameras and guards.  Outside, they walked in a procession around the museum,  with the museum director and a few other  staff members following.

As they passed the parking lot,   the  Kainai delegation broke into a run toward a waiting pickup truck.  They swiftly clambered in with the bundle  and drove away.  As I later learned,  one member of the delegation had dreamt a few weeks earlier that he could spirit away the bundle from the museum:  today the Kainai talk about how this man cast a charm over the curators.

Many of the Kainai have now returned to their traditional spiritual practices,  and I have heard that the bundle is a very cherished part of those practices.    Clearly, the museum should  have restored the bundle to the Kainai when they asked for it.

I have often heard aboriginal people talk about the sacredness of the rock art.  Isn’t it time that  museums think about giving it back to the people who rightfully own it?

6 Comments

  1. Turtle Heart

    Great story. The guys took back their bundles is a great story. I wish more tribal people had the temerity to try this. I am an Ojibway man. I have taken a few things from museums and brought them back to the elders, but more quietly than those brave fellows. Ceremonial objects, to virtually all tribes, have status as persons. It is heartbreaking to tribal people to see their sacred things imprisoned in a dead space. It is hard I guess for some people to understand this, but it is a true and beautiful thing. I support your argument.

  2. Turtle Heart:

    Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts on this. I personally didn’t realize that these ceremonial objects have status as persons in many tribes, and to my mind this is another immensely compelling argument for repatriation. I’d hate to see any native elders arrested, however, for taking matters entirely into their own hands. I’m advocating lobbying museums and using the art of persuasion.

  3. Great story Heather and nice comment Turtle Heart.

    I think some museum and archaeology types do indeed get carried away with the “stamp collecting” and “completionist tendency” parts of their jobs. That is, they still construe their role as to collect, and to complete the collection.

    But in many cases where repatriation has happened, whether conensually or even enforced, the process has been unexpectedly rewarding for the museum. I think of the well-known case of Haisla First Nation repatriating a “totem pole” from Stockholm. Initially reluctant, the Stockholm museum got into the swing of it, funded the Haisla to come and carve a replica in their foyer, there was singing, there was dancing, Swedish curators came to the Kitlope, it was emotional and spiritual, and it was also the most and best publicity that museum ever had.

    So yeah, almost a Buddhist lesson: You receive more by giving back.

  4. Really interesting story about the Haisla and the repatriation of their pole, Quentin. I also recall how much goodwill the Smithsonian generated when its curators repatriated human remains to Niitsitapi living in Montana. I interviewed some of the elders just before the repatriation and they were overjoyed. This was a NAGPRA enforced repatriation, of course, but I believe that it was tremendously emotional and satisfying for all parties concerned. I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of putting old wrongs to right.

  5. Museums should curate the emotions of the living as well as the things of the dead.

  6. Yes, though many curators would find this a pretty tall order. But it seems to me that museums predicated much of their collecting efforts in the 19th and early 20th centuries on one assumption–namely that aboriginal cultures were on death’s door and that museums had to step in and save all they could. It might have been a laudable enterprise at the time, but their basic premise proved false. Aboriginal cultures were and are very resilient, and now many First Nations/Native Americans want their important stuff back. I certainly can’t blame them.

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