Getting Our Belongings Back
by Adrian Stimson
Being born First Nations means that you’re born into politics—that’s the reality we face in this country. My father became chief of Siksika Nation after he was our tribal administrator for 30 years, so I grew up in a political household. For me, understanding the process of fighting for our rights and for our ways of life to be honoured and respected through diplomacy and politics all goes back to Blackfoot traditional values of humility. For as long as I can remember, we have been fighting for our rights. In 1990 I ran for council here at the Siksika Nation, and during the 10 years that I held that position, I worked on a number of different portfolios of the nation’s affairs, like education, finance and culture. In that time, our culture department was aligned with the First Nations Confederacy of Cultural Education Centres (FNCCEC), which was considered the sister organization of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN).
The FNCCEC represented close to 80 cultural centres across Canada, and it provided the AFN with the research they needed to forward legislative change to the federal government. I became president of that organization, and in that time our two main initiatives were to push for legislation to protect Indigenous languages and for repatriation of stolen cultural objects. The FNCCEC consulted with cultural centres across Canada and internationally, many of whom had regalia, artifacts and material culture in various collections around Canada and around the world that we were hoping to see returned.
To this day, Canada still doesn’t have effective repatriation legislation, even though Private Member’s Bill C-391, the Indigenous Human Remains and Cultural Property Repatriation Act, an act that suggests a “national strategy for the repatriation of Indigenous human remains and cultural property,” has gone through three readings in the House of Commons. While there has been a lot of research and motion toward repatriation, a very small proportion of institutions are actually even willing to broach this topic, so the onus is on us to approach those that own our material culture. Getting back just one sacred bundle— which is a wrapped collection of sacred, living objects that hold considerable spiritual power—involves a lot of advocacy and activism.
Siksika’s attempts to repatriate our sacred objects started with the Kainai Nation, the Blood Tribe in Southern Alberta. In 1994, Ryan Heavy Hand sent 4,000 letters to 4,000 museums around the world to inquire about the Blackfoot material culture in their collections. Only 200 museums responded to acknowledge their holdings of our sacred objects. We know that a lot of our material culture is in collections all over the world, but we don’t know what or where it is, what shape things are in or whether they’re being taken care of. It’s a big investigative game to try to figure it out. But once we know, we have to enter into that political process with the institution to see if they’re willing to take accountability for their ownership, and if they are, what is the process of getting our belongings back?
In Southern Alberta, the Glenbow Museum in Calgary is one of those accepting institutions and over the years they’ve worked very closely with the Blackfoot. The Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton also signed agreements with the nations to return sacred artifacts deemed needed back in our communities. Another museum that has been receptive to repatriation is the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York City, with which the Blackfoot Nations did a lot of work. I visited their facilities with a delegation to look at a number of bundles we were working to bring back. We have to go there ourselves to prepare the bundles to be returned, though I’m not personally in one of the societies that can handle bundles and only went there to evaluate the collections. I couldn’t believe the amount of material culture that was housed in that building— vaults and vaults of totem poles, canoes and pottery from all over the Americas.
For a lot of First Nations, this has been going on since settlers first started taking our objects. It’s not uncommon to hear stories about how they used to come to reserves and purchase or just take objects— especially at a time when the nation was in a bad state in the ’50s and ’60s. First Nations people were pressured into selling their cultural belongings, but there are also a lot of deviant ways in which settlers acquired these objects. As a recent example, I’ve been working with artist AA Bronson on his Public Apology to the Siksika Nation regarding his familial history. His great-grandfather, Reverend JW Tims, who was one of the first Anglican priests here on the nation, was gifted many Blackfoot artifacts, material culture and headdresses. Then the Marquis of Lorne “borrowed” them from Tims and took off to Europe and never gave them back. The Marquis basically stole them and then sold them for 100 bucks to the British Museum, which is notorious for being unreceptive to repatriation. I recently saw them when I visited the British Museum’s storage facilities in Shoreditch, London. The storage facilities where much of this material culture is housed are old and, frankly, just horrid. They’ve had moth infestations, and many items are stored in plastic bags and degrading cardboard boxes. The facilities are tinderboxes; one match and I’m sure the whole facility would go down. So much of our stolen material culture is in peril and it’s ironic that we have to have approved facilities for their return when the facilities at institutions such as the British Museum are below standard.
In many Indigenous cultures, a lot of these objects have a life of their own. They’re sacred objects that need to breathe; they need to be taken care of, renewed and activated by being used in ceremony. Because they are considered living items they get transformed by the collections they’re in: they become static when they’re not doing what they normally would do. But even when they’re in stasis, it doesn’t mean that they’re not still alive or that they don’t still hold the power that they once held.
I recently installed my video Shaman Exterminator: On the trail of the Woodcraft Indians with the Buffalo Boy Scouts of America (2016) in an exhibition curated by Joey Orr, at the University of Kansas’ Spencer Museum of Art. I chose to juxtapose the video with historical Blackfoot objects that I selected from their museum’s collection of Blackfoot material culture. When my work gets curated in museum collections or purchased by institutions, like the British Museum, it’s an opportunity for me to be subversive by inserting myself in the museum. The trickster figure comes to mind—the coyote, the clown—mirroring back but also being contrarian, playing with the system itself and showing how it should be. Hopefully by doing that, I can generate a larger discussion about the agency of the artist and the agency of our work. It’s a strategic choice for me to insert my work in collections—it’s a way to think about acquisitions in relation to how material culture can be displayed with input from First Nations or Indigenous groups, to best represent our material culture in these collections. But because of the museum’s policies I still had to display the historical pieces that I selected behind glass, even though they have to be activated. You can look at them in a vitrine but those leggings, for example, should be moving, in a powwow—that’s where they have their power and their agency.
A lot of us believe strongly that these living objects are our kin. In dealing with their spiritual power you have to have a lot of respect for them. Each sacred bundle has a specific purpose, and not just anybody can handle a bundle or take care of it—you certainly don’t just open a bundle for the sake of opening it. They can only be in the hands of certain people who have been members of societies for many years; they’re the ones who know the protocol around opening them and renewing and activating their contents in ceremony. If you’re that person at a given time, the community looks to you as the one who’s responsible for using them for the good of the community. If you use their spiritual power in a selfish or malicious way, I could compare the effects to karma: something will come back to bite you.
Certainly, I can say that in my lifetime I’ve seen and heard of things happen that I can’t explain. There’s a lot of purposeful secrecy behind bundles, and rightly so, to protect them, but there are stories that were told to me, that are told in public, that I can share here. When the Thunder Bundle came back from the Smithsonian, the carriers said that it was vibrating on the flight home to the Blood Reserve. I know of a museum in Oregon that called the Kainai Nation to come and remove a bundle out of their collection because the staff heard animals in the room all the time. My father told me a story about an instance when he participated in opening a bundle during the First Thunder ceremony, and he saw all the animals come out of it and dance around the room.
A lot of the Elders I know feel very strongly that we have to be ready to take on this work. You don’t want to put yourself or your family at risk—these things have a way of their own if you disrespect the cultural protocols required to handle them. A lot of First Nations are saying to the institutions that have our cultural belongings: yes, show our culture, but do it in a way that involves us, and move toward honest discussions of history and provenance. These collections are still repositories of our history; they’re like our little safeguards. Yes, they might’ve been collected inappropriately, but they’re still there, and a lot of our Elders here on the nation have said that until we’re ready to receive them back, it’s okay for them to be there, as long as they are treated and taken care of properly.
While we do have to be prepared to receive them back ourselves, one of the standard museum policies for repatriation requires us to build our own centres to house the collections when they’re returned, but the fact is that there’s barely a handful of First Nations that could afford to build the adequate, climate-controlled facilities. For current conversations on repatriation to have any real teeth, there have to be laws put in place and funding secured to support them. The federal government has to pass legislation specifically mandating accountability for institutions that have our belongings in their collections so that when any Indigenous group voices that they want them back, the institutions are obligated to engage with them in discussions about how they’ll return it.
Being First Nations means you are born into politics. For us to decolonize these institutions, discussions on repatriation need to be based on our communities’ needs, not the whim of whatever current political ideology is in power. The success we’ve had in repatriating bundles has rejuvenated our cultures; getting our cultural belongings back is crucial to the renewal of our societies. Repatriation has been in the political realm for decades, but taking these things on is a long-term process. Change doesn’t happen quickly—we have to be constantly diligent to make it happen. With everything facing us these days, sometimes it doesn’t seem like things are going to get better, and it’s easy to want to just throw up your hands. But we can’t. Because there’s so much at stake. Our lives, our cultural being, our spiritual being—they’re all at stake. You have to act when the time comes—you have to know when to be a diplomat and when to be a warrior.