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?