by Murray Whyte
There’s a story Paul Williams likes to share, though he’d rather not say when it’s from or who it’s about. Most of the things involved we can never show you either – they’re sacred objects, and meant only for very specific eyes. By Williams’ own request, we can’t even tell you where they are.
What we can tell you is where they’ve been: at the Royal Ontario Museum – where, long ago, they were on very public display – and that’s where his story begins.
It was in a conference room at the ROM, maybe a little more recently than it ought to have been, when Williams, a lawyer with the Six Nations of the Grand River, a Haudenosaunee reserve near Brantford, began outlining his request.
The ROM had in its possession no small number of significant things taken from his people over the years, he explained, and he was there to engage the process of getting them back.
As he outlined the work – his list spanned sacred objects and human remains, among other things – a senior ROM official (no longer with the museum, note) grew increasingly agitated. Suddenly, he punctuated their meeting with an incredulous plea.
“He said, ëMr. Williams, a third of everything in this museum is probably sacred to somebody,
somewhere. Surely you don’t expect us to return all of it?'”
Williams laughed, a deep, full-bodied thing. “That’s when I realized there were two totally different views of the world.'”
When it comes to the repatriation of Six Nations artifacts, all roads lead right here.
A call to the chair of the reserve’s repatriation committee was immediately deflected Williams’ way; a note to the Six Nations council, the seat of its local government, was returned, helpfully, with his mobile number.
At his kitchen table, tea steaming from his cup, Williams, with his brushed-back hair and button-down shirt, seems Ivy League, or Bay Street on casual Friday. Outside his window in the near distance, the Grand River cuts a quiet swath through the long grasses and low forests of Canada’s largest Indigenous reserve, and tells another story.
Williams, who is Onondaga, has been working on the legal tangles of Indigenous rights in this country for more than 40 years. Helping people, like the erstwhile museum official, to understand the critical importance of sacred things – as living symbols for a people straining to reclaim their spiritual core – is part of his job. Over the years, they have not been universally receptive. But the law is on his side, and he’s learned to be patient.
“Nothing I do, that’s worthwhile at least, takes less than 20 years,” he shrugs, good-naturedly. “Whether it’s about land, or language, or physically bringing those things back home, it’s about recovery. And that always takes time.”
In this, the year of Canada’s 150th birthday, things might appear to be in sudden fast-forward. It is, most involved with it would say, merely a perception. In the wake of the 2015 federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, a usually private process has been thrust into a very public light.
Indigenous culture has been front and centre in 2017, in no small measure due to a rising chorus of resistance from Indigenous groups across the country.
As notions of reconciliation, and its failings, became intertwined with Canada 150, repatriation has been very much in vogue, a media darling of sorts.
Recent reports from British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii, for example, have cast the Haida people there as culture warriors serving loud public notice: To anyone who may have the things they hold dear, be aware – they’re coming for them. Objects there are being brought home to a massive new cultural centre, to be displayed as the icons of a culture already globally famous for its dazzling aesthetic.
On Six Nations, a process no less determined has played out under very different terms.
Pieces have been retrieved from museums as far-ranging as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington and New York, the Denver Art Museum and, here at home, the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa and the ROM. Once recovered, they slip back into the community largely unnoticed, or so they hope, and go right back into ceremonial use.
Privacy has its spiritual significance: In Haudenosaunee practice, outsiders who so much as see sacred works violate their spirit, an affront museums here and elsewhere broadly ignored for decades. A set of sacred pieces brought home from the ROM recently were on display there until the late 1980s. It was only the museum’s intention to lend them to The Spirit Sings, an Indigenous exhibition made for the 1988 Calgary Olympics, that prompted outcry loud enough to put them under lock and key.
But there’s also practical purpose to the secrecy, Williams says. Objects of great value held by individuals, not institutions, become vulnerable to temptation.
“If you have a laid-off electrician who’s suddenly in possession of a sacred object worth $50,000 on the open market, that could be a problem,” he says. “What we don’t want is a map for private collectors to know whose doors to go knocking on.”
Williams’ concern is not far-fetched. Of the thousands of objects repatriated, and the thousands yet to be, a fair question can be asked of them all: How did they slip away from their keepers in the first place? Like many things to do with the dubious realm of colonial practice, the majority are far from pleasant.
Missionaries, military and, eventually, Indian agents – government employees who held up the oppressive principles of the Indian Act – skimmed Indigenous communities for objects of value for years, paying little, and sometimes nothing at all. Some were given as gifts; others, in the case of some missionaries, surrendered as a gesture of conversion. Many were traded, often for as little as liquor or tobacco. The important ones, used in sacred practice, never should have left at all.
Museums, it turns out, were the best of their fates. A brisk private trade in Indigenous objects over centuries landed a good many in private collections, where no law compels them to be returned.
Just this week, a ceremonial pipe from Manitoulin Island turned up at an auction at Bonhams in San Francisco, with a high estimate of $51,000.
Objects held by the government enjoy a less dramatic fate, but they’re still a long way from home – a fact many communities have been slowly correcting for years. On a recent tour of the collections room at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., Nadja Roby walked by a rack of empty shelves, where objects waiting to be released to Six Nations typically rest.
“They’ve been very busy,” she says, explaining the scarcity, and illustrating the group’s quiet industry.
Roby, the museum’s manager of repatriation and Indigenous relations, is as versed in the process of returning objects to their rightful keepers as anyone in the country. Her department has a full-time staff of four, which doubled this year, though rising public interest in the wake of the TRC and Canada 150 has little to do with it, she said.
“There’s more attention than there was, yes,” she says. “But the work, and the relationship building, is the same.”
Roby, or one of her staff, is present for every federal treaty negotiation involving culture and heritage, presenting the contents of the museum’s collection as part of the process. Off to the side, a section of the collections room is cordoned off by a white chain. Here, racks are draped in red fabric, to further prevent any viewing of the sacred objects underneath. We can’t show you a picture of even this much, let alone what lies beneath. Those are for community members only, and sometimes, Roby says, not even them.
“Some people won’t even come in here,” she says. “They find the objects too powerful, too moving.”
Penny Pine, the museum’s collections coordinator, wheeled by with a cart transporting a delicate feathered headdress from the Haida First Nation. Pine, who is Anishinaabe from the Garden River First Nation near Sault Ste. Marie, is responsible for the collection’s care and maintenance, physical and otherwise.
Certain things require her to perform a smudging ceremony prior to them being moved, and objects are often brought into a special room where visiting members of communities can interact with them.
“I feel like we’ve really been on a positive path,” she said. “Access is a high-level priority, and that’s something I’ve always appreciated.”
Repatriation, Roby explains, is not one-size-fits-all. Some communities don’t have the capacity to store or care for objects, preferring to leave them with the museum for safe-keeping. Others, like the Nisga’a in northwest British Columbia, prefer a shared custody arrangement, where objects rotate between the community and the museum, which takes them back for conservation.
“It takes many forms,” Roby says, “and the community always takes the lead.”
It’s often easier said than done, and the process can be slow. The collection of sacred objects, used in medicine ceremonies, that Williams brought back from the ROM this fall were first requested in 2005.
Mark Engstrom, the ROM’s deputy director, knows the museum should move more quickly and be more responsive. It’s trying, he says, though manpower and the complexities of some cases keep it from being as nimble as he’d like.
“We’re actually quite enthusiastic about repatriation,” he says, “but we have to do our due diligence, and make sure the things we have go back to where they belong.”
In Canada, no law governs repatriation, as it does in the United States. That leaves museums here to draft their own policies. They are, on the whole, broadly compliant, if a little slow.
Engstrom points to a case more than a decade ago, when the museum returned a set of beaver bundles to a Blackfoot community in Alberta.
“At the time, people here were worried: What’s going to happen to them if we give them back?” he said. “And their comment was: ëShould we give them back as a permanent loan?’ Which then means if someone decides to dispose of them, we would need to be consulted. I just said no – I mean, how patronizing is that? You’re giving it back to the community, period. It’s not ours to decide.”
But the transactional nature of repatriation does little to address a larger issue. “I think there needs to be some work done, especially with Indigenous people, to bring them to the point where they can see the museum as a safe environment – or neutral, at the very least,” he says.
“And I don’t think that’s the case at present. I think the ROM really needs to change – change its attitude, and change its allocation of resources to make this dream of reconciliation more of a reality.”
Indeed, simply giving things back, though significant, is small reparation for the very real damage done to Indigenous communities by colonial incursions that stripped them first of their land and then, through assimilation policies like residential schools, their culture and sense of self. On reserve, cultural revival is active, though slowed by a lack of resources and no comparable institutions of their own.
The Woodland Cultural Centre on Six Nations hosts a major collection of Haudenosaunee archaeological objects, but hasn’t had the resources to properly study them, says its executive director Paula Whitlow.
“We have the Morton collection, or the Grimsby collection, but we’re lucky to even know the name,” she says.
“To date things, we need to write grants and get archaeological interns to help us. Of course we want to know the background of things – I mean, it’s a stone tool, say, but what’s the context of it? Was it made pre-contact, post contact? Without any of that knowledge, it’s just a rock.”
She turns to one of the museum’s most cherished objects, a ceramic bowl they believe dates back as far as 11,000 years. But the granular specifics of it only cutting-edge technology can provide, and that’s something to which they have access only by chance or goodwill.
Major Haudenosaunee finds now travel either to an archaeological repository either at Western or McMaster University – among other reasons, the WCC is full-up – where they’re cared for and examined.
Why such a repository wouldn’t be built here, where the culture lives, Whitlow says, is a familiar refrain. “It’s like the parent and child,” she says. “We know best – why can’t we be the caretakers?”
Williams has been involved with the story long enough to know things are not yet where they need to be.
“There’s nothing more unsettling than sitting across the table from someone who will say, plainly: “That object? No, that’s not sacred to you,'” he says. “They seem to believe a Ph.D. gives them that authority – I know everything about ‘you people.’ That’s the blatant tell. The truth is, we have a scholarship deficit of our own that needs to be addressed.”
But it’s better than it was. “In a lot places in the world, people doing the work I’m doing would either be dead or disappeared,” he smiles, “so Canada isn’t so bad.”
Even so, 40 years later, it still feels like the story has barely begun. “Being underestimated can be a huge amount of fun,” Williams says. “But it gets boring after a while. A big part of all of this recovery is the recovery of respect. And we’re still working on that.”
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services