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Retrieving Blackfoot artefacts

Legislative difficulties & high costs may mean that many sacred items that ought to be in the Blackfoot cultural centre have little chance of being returned.

Calgary Herald [1]

Displaced Blackfoot artefacts remain out of reach
Feb 08, 2009 Web embargo to 7 a.m. ET
By Jamie Komarnicki, Canwest News Service

CALGARY – More than 18 months after a sprawling Blackfoot cultural centre opened on the Siksika reserve, museum officials say scores of displaced artifacts potentially worth millions of dollars remain out of reach.

Faced with legislative hassles and jaw-dropping costs, curators of Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park fear that sacred items lost years ago to unscrupulous explorers and collectors may never return to their native land, said president Jack Royal.

“Some of them were taken illegally by collectors, museums, even government, ” Royal said.

“You almost feel helpless. Because if there’s no policy or legislation or funds to support bringing it home, the Nation can’t afford to buy everything back.”

Built on a ridge above an old buffalo trail about 100 kilometres east of Calgary, Blackfoot Crossing collected scattered pieces of the tribe’s cultural trove when it opened in July, 2007.

Band members delivered sacred family heirlooms for safekeeping, Royal said. Private collectors also donated a handful of articles.

Retrieving Blackfoot items from other museums, though, has proven difficult.

Blackfoot Crossing officials have recovered several items from Alberta facilities through a provincial law that allows First Nations to reclaim historical objects in the government’s hands if the band can prove ownership, but similar federal legislation doesn’t exist.

That means if the tribe wants an item it has to do what any other museum or cultural body has to do – buy it. Acquiring items through usual museum channels, though, comes at a staggering cost.

Last winter, a Siksika buckskin shirt adorned with horsehair, beads and weasel tails went up for sale at New York’s swank Sotheby’s auction house. It sold for $1.1 million to a private collector, Royal said. The matching leggings went for $800,000.

The museum’s tight budget – funded about 70 to 80 per cent by the Siksika Nation – doesn’t stack up with the big spenders.

“We just don’t have the resources, the policy or the legislation,” Royal said.

The museum’s struggle to reclaim historical artifacts is common among First Nations communities, experts say.

To make a case for repatriation, the First Nation has to prove the item was illegally taken from a band or a family, said aboriginal artist Gerald McMaster. Even then, without legislation backing them up, there’s no guarantee they’ll retrieve the article, said McMaster, curator of Canadian art at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

“Local communities, First Nations, fall into that rut of not being able to find the money to bring back these objects that they feel they’d like to have back in their own institutions,” McMaster said.

A federal task force in the 1990s rejected formal legislation to repatriate objects “because they felt that museums would work on good will,” McMaster said, adding the approach has been relatively successful.

Claims to ownership don’t always work, though, according to Alfred Young Man, department head of the Indian Fine Arts department at the First Nations University of Canada.

Some facilities simply aren’t prepared to give up pieces of their “bread- and-butter” displays, he said.

“I think it’s a perfect example of how powerless First Nations people are in all this,” Young Man said.

“If legislation is not enacted to protect the rightful cultural owners of these things, they’ll continue to be exploited.”

In Alberta, expectations for Blackfoot Crossing are high.

In 1977 – a century after the historic Treaty 7 was signed in the Bow River Valley – descendants of legendary signatory Chief Crowfoot first dreamed of building a centre to honour their heritage.

Thirty years later, Blackfoot Crossing opened with a flourish.

The centre combined education, artifacts, a theatre and ecotourism on 800 hectares of golden prairie land.

It’s centrepiece, though, was the 62,000-square-foot interpretive centre and museum rising from the cliff.

Today, the icons of a storied tribe are housed inside.

The absence of untold amounts of clothing, tools, pipes, sacred medicine bundles and other artifacts of the Blackfoot people strewn throughout the world, though, is painful, Royal said.

With no way of gauging what exactly is gone, the fledgling museum is now working on a campaign to bring their items back.

Museum officials are cataloguing every known missing Blackfoot artifact, Royal said.

Once the rough list is finished, they’ll prioritize what they want to target for retrieval.

“It’s a big task. We’re talking about artifacts in London and Germany and France and the United States and Canada – almost all over the world,” Royal said.

The big “get” is a war shirt belonging to Chief Crowfoot.

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter currently holds the sought-after item as part of a Treaty 7 collection, said Irvine Scalplock, Blackfoot Crossing senior curator.

According to Scalplock, the British museum bought the items from a former North-West Mounted Police officer who brought them home when he returned to his native England.

“We believe it’s going to be quite difficult to ever get this item. But it doesn’t hurt to try,” Scalplock said.

Indeed, the task of fleshing out Blackfoot Crossing’s collection is daunting – but worthwhile, Royal said.

“This isn’t only Siksika’s history, it’s Alberta’s history, Canada’s history,” Royal said.

“It’s going to strengthen the culture, it’s going to help preserve maintain and enhance it. There’s identity tied to it.”

Calgary Herald