‘Overdue’: B.C. First Nations welcome Pope’s hint that Vatican will return Indigenous artifacts

Click to play video: 'Pope signals willingness to return Indigenous artifacts'
Pope signals willingness to return Indigenous artifacts
WATCH: Indigenous leaders are welcoming the Pope's new willingness to return Indigenous artifacts held in the Vatican archives on a case-by-case basis. Kylie Stanton reports – May 3, 2023

A handful First Nations people in B.C. are welcoming an unexpected hint from Pope Francis that the Vatican will return Indigenous artifacts to their rightful homes across Turtle Island.

During a Sunday press conference on a flight between Hungary and Italy, the Holy Father said restitution is the “right gesture,” and that museums should return items wherever possible.

“The Seventh Commandment comes to mind: If you steal something you have to give it back,” he said through a translator.

“In the case where you can return things, where it’s necessary to make a gesture, better to do it …  It’s good for everyone, so you don’t get used to putting your hands in someone else’s pockets.”

Pope Francis is greeted by George Arcand, Grand Chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations, as he arrives in Edmonton on Sun., July 24, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Adam Olsen, MLA for Saanich North and a citizen of the Tsartlip First Nation, welcomed the sign that the Roman Catholic Church is trying to make amends.

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“I think it really indicates that we are walking down a journey of reconciliation together, and that people who hold these sacred items are recognizing there’s a place for them and it’s not necessarily in a vault or on display,” he told Global News. “Some of the most interesting items to me are the ones that show the craftsmanship of Indigenous people.

“When you take a look at how these items were put together from natural resources that were harvested, that were manipulated and became a net or some amazing fishing technology, as just one example, you start to understand just how complex these societies were.”

Click to play video: 'Sacred totem pole to return home to Bella Coola'
Sacred totem pole to return home to Bella Coola

In 1925, former pope Pius XI decided to hold a world exposition. He wanted to celebrate the Church’s global reach, its missionaries and the lives of Indigenous Peoples they evangelized, and asked for contributions of artifacts from around the globe.

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In Canada, the federal government had already confiscated artifacts from across the country, having outlawed cultural practices, including wearing traditional clothing, through the Indian Act in 1876 and the Potlatch Ban in 1885.

Today, the Anima Mundi Ethnological Museum contains tens of thousands of Indigenous artifacts from around the world, exhibited on rotation due to their age and fragility, according to its website. Its collection is known to contain masks, wampum belts, pipes and rugs, embroidered animal skins and other items from Indigenous nations throughout North America.

The museum was toured by First Nations, Métis and Inuit delegations who visited the Vatican last spring to push for reconciliation and an apology from the Catholic Church. One of their asks included the repatriation of artifacts from Canada.

Click to play video: 'Alberta government returns sacred artifact on National Day for Truth and Reconciliation'
Alberta government returns sacred artifact on National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

Lou-Ann Neel, a Kwakwaka’wakw artist, said she was “surprised” to read the Pope’s words, describing them as an “open door” with “lots of unanswered questions, mostly around process.”

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“I’m a policy analyst by training so I was really looking at how he phrased all of that. it made me think about how they will differentiate between what’s stolen and what’s not, and what kind of records that’s going to produce,” she said in an interview.

“I think that’s really important because I think that sets a tone for museums around the world to really take a look at their own documentation, their own paper trail. Provenance — they have to be able to demonstrate the provenance, the origin of these pieces, so that if they do embark on repatriation, they’ll return to the right communities.”

Click to play video: 'Giving First Nation delegates access to the Vatican’s Indigenous collection'
Giving First Nation delegates access to the Vatican’s Indigenous collection

There are international standards guiding the issue of returning Indigenous cultural property, as well as individual museum policies. The 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, for example, asserts that nations should provide redress, including through restitution, of cultural, religious and spiritual property taken “without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs.”

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The Vatican has already repatriated some items belonging to Indigenous Peoples. Vatican News reported in 2021, for example, that the Anima Mundi had recently returned to Ecuador a shrunken head used in rituals by the Jivaroan peoples of the Amazon.

Other museums are starting to repatriate items from their own collections as well. Last month, the Geneva Museum of Ethnography in Switzerland returned a medicine mask and a turtle rattle to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy that in been in its possession for more than 200 years.

Click to play video: 'Royal BC Museum apologizes for embarrassing error'
Royal BC Museum apologizes for embarrassing error

In B.C., the Nisga’a Nation has negotiated the return of a sacred totem pole from Scotland’s National Museum and the Gitxaała Nation has arranged to receive a longhouse post from the Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, taken from its unceded territory around 138 years ago.

The Royal BC Museum recently closed its third floor as well to begin “decolonization” in its galleries.

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Olsen said repatriation is complicated, given the length of time that has passed since items were stolen and the way colonial governance has blurred the timeline of ownership, but the province has a role to play.

“I think the work that the government should be playing in this, is working with communities to ensure there’s a place for these items to go to,” he explained.

“There’s no doubt that in the history of our country and province that the interruptions in governance has created some real challenges with respect to understanding where exactly where items should go and who these items belong to.”

Click to play video: 'B.C. tourism minister makes business case for Royal BC Museum replacement'
B.C. tourism minister makes business case for Royal BC Museum replacement

When it comes to repatriation, Neel said she would like to see an agreement from all parties in writing, with proper resourcing to deliver on promises made.

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Les Doiron, vice-president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, said Pope Francis’ hints are “exciting” and “long overdue,” given how long Indigenous peoples have been “deprived” of their sacred items. Like Neel, however, he said much work needs to be done first.

“I think the most obvious thing is the ownership — who owns the artifacts? That would be the individual Indigenous communities they’d be going back to (who decides),” he said.

“Some of the communities have been doing this for quite some time … you need to have special facilities in order to house and keep them safe from a lot of different things.”

Doiron added that he hopes Sunday’s news has their ancestors “dancing like crazy” in the Spirit World.

— with files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press

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