Royal BC Museum releases province’s first Indigenous Repatriation Handbook

Culture Uncategorized

Handbook looks to guide museums out of a dark history of colonizing practices

Photo provided by the Royal BC Museum

The Royal BC Museum has items from Indigenous peoples across the province in its collection — but not all of these items were collected with the permission of those Indigenous peoples. Now, the museum is on a path to repatriation, or the process of returning something to its nation of origin. 

Last month, the Royal BC Museum and the Haida Gwaii Museum at Kay Llnagaay published an Indigenous Repatriation Handbook. The 174-page handbook was released in response to feedback from the 2017 Repatriation symposium hosted by the Royal BC Museum and the First People’s Cultural Council. 

The handbook, the first created by and for Indigenous peoples, provides practical information for processes of repatriation that align with each community’s respective cultural traditions and values. It includes the best practices, tools for community organizing, case studies, and resources for First Nations communities and museums.

“Healing and reconciliation are difficult challenges for society,” said Professor Jack Lohman, CEO of the Royal BC Museum, in a press release. “Through this handbook, the Royal BC Museum acknowledges the role it can take in providing guidance, identifying best practices, and simply supporting the work of Indigenous communities as they embark upon this hugely important work.”

Making this resource a reality required the hard work of those directly involved in writing it: Jisgang Nika Collison, Executive Director and Curator at the Haida Gwaii Museum at Kay Llnagaay and a member of the Royal BC Museum Board of Directors;  Sdaahl K’awaas Lucy Bell, Head of the Indigenous Collections and Repatriation Department at the Royal BC Museum; and Lou-ann Neel, Repatriation Specialist at the Royal BC Museum.

A dark history 

The Indigenous Repatriation handbook expands on how many 20th century practices in the name of research, and holding on to history, were ultimately harmful to Indigenous peoples. It notes that “unethical and often illegal” collecting occured in the late 1800s and even into the 1980s, with Indigenous graves desecrated and personal belongings taken through illegitimate sales. Researchers held the colonial belief that Indigenous peoples were on a path to extinction. 

“That really sparked a collecting frenzy, that sent out people: anthropologists, military, adventurers or self-proclaimed pioneers,” said Neel to the CBC. “[They] just felt like they had permission because the general sense across Canada and the U.S. was that ‘Indians’ would soon be gone.”

From 1884 to 1951, potlatch ceremonies were banned by the federal government. These important social events involved regalia and masks with value and immense cultural significance — some of which were taken or bought by researchers for museums during the years of the potlatch ban. Although the potlatch ban ended over 50 years ago, museums across the province are still returning potlatch collections to their original nations.

Currently, there are about 15 000 Indigenous artifacts in the Royal BC Museum, many of which were likely taken during the potlatch years, Neel outlined to the CBC. The museum, however, is in the process of looking at the origin of every object to determine where it came from.

Guiding repatriation 

Under a recent policy change at the Royal BC Museum, anything acquired by the museum during the potlatch ban years will be eligible for repatriation. 

The museum is also currently returning the approximately 700 ancestral remains it has in its collection of Indigenous peoples across B.C. Experts are determining where the bones were found, and asking Indigenous Nations what they would like to do with the remains. Under a new policy, the museum will no longer study ancestral remains. 

In the handbook, Collison writes that “as museum professionals, and as human beings, we carry the responsibility to affect societal change by mainstreaming Canada’s dark history with Indigenous people while actively working to set things right.” 

To continue working towards repatriation, the museum received two million dollars in funding from the province in 2016. Last year, the museum distributed more than $580 000 in grants to Indigenous communities for repatriation projects. 

A full pdf of the new Indigenous repatriation handbook can be accessed online. Physical copies are available for purchase at local bookstores, the Royal BC Museum Shop, and online at the museum’s website.