Skip to content

May we suggest

News / April 18, 2019

The Indigenous Repatriation Handbook Is Out Now, and Ready to Grow

This free, much-needed e-book was spotlighted at the Canadian Museums Association National Conference—an event heralding other key developments on Indigenous-museum relations, too
The cover of the Indigenous Repatriation Handbook features art by Dylan Thomas. The book is published by the Royal BC Museum, and will be adapted as case studies and knowledge grows. The cover of the Indigenous Repatriation Handbook features art by Dylan Thomas. The book is published by the Royal BC Museum, and will be adapted as case studies and knowledge grows.
The cover of the Indigenous Repatriation Handbook features art by Dylan Thomas. The book is published by the Royal BC Museum, and will be adapted as case studies and knowledge grows. The cover of the Indigenous Repatriation Handbook features art by Dylan Thomas. The book is published by the Royal BC Museum, and will be adapted as case studies and knowledge grows.

In recent months, national and international government announcements on repatriation have become ever more frequent.

In February 2019, a new bill toward a national strategy for repatriation of Indigenous human remains and cultural property passed its third reading in Canada’s House of Commons, and moved on to the Senate. In March 2019, German cultural authorities agreed on a new set of guidelines for repatriating colonially looted artifacts. And in November 2018, a report commissioned by Emmanuel Macron announced France would “allow full repatriation of African artworks taken without consent from their countries of origin.”

Yet how does repatriation actually happen in practice? How can Indigenous communities locate and advocate for repatriation of their specific cultural treasures? What timelines are realistic, and what resources are required, to support this needed shift? When are museums being responsive, rather than prescriptive, in repatriation approaches?

“Communities were saying, we don’t know how to begin begin to talk to museums…. and then museums were in the exact same situation,” says Lou-ann Neel.

These vital questions, among others, are addressed in the new Indigenous Repatriation Handbook. This new, free book—available now online and soon in print—is authored by Jisgang Nika Collison, Sdaahl K’awaas Lucy Bell and Lou-ann Neel, three leading west-coast experts on repatriation from the Haida Gwaii Museum and the Royal BC Museum. The book is aimed at Indigenous communities in BC, as well as at museums attempting repatriation. And it also contains (in this journalist’s opinion) knowledge and stories illuminating to others in the cultural sector—especially around the intensive labour and time required for the process.

“The direction to do this book came from the [Indigenous] communities when we held our Repatriation Symposium in 2017,” says Lou-ann Neel, repatriations specialist at the Royal BC Museum. “Communities were saying, we don’t know how to begin begin to talk to museums…and then museums were in the exact same situation: ‘We don’t know how to reach out, we don’t know who to contact.’”

Profile for the new book grew this week at the annual Canadian Museums Association National Conference in Toronto. There, a “Repatriation 101” session took place, among discussion of other new levers and fundings aimed at helping museums meet specific Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations.

These other key conference findings include announcement of more than $600,000 in new federal money to help Canadian museums meet TRC Call to Action 67. There was also discussion of a new, unique legal agreement—an alternative to traditional museum “ownership” of a cultural treasure—recently signed between Winnipeg’s Canadian Museum for Human Rights and Kwagiulth/Salish/Settler artist Carey Newman of Vancouver Island.

The Royal BC Museum's repatriation efforts gained more staff, and wider media coverage, in 2018. And are set to do more in 2019. Photo: Facebook / Indigenous Royal BC Museum. The Royal BC Museum's repatriation efforts gained more staff, and wider media coverage, in 2018. And are set to do more in 2019. Photo: Facebook / Indigenous Royal BC Museum.

New Indigenous Repatriation Handbook Is Designed to Change

The authors of the Indigenous Repatriation Handbook bring significant experience to the fore: Jisgang Nika Collison is executive director and curator at the Haida Gwaii Museum. Sdaahl K’awaas Lucy Bell is head of First Nations and Repatriation at the Royal BC Museum, and has worked in the repatriation field for more than 20 years. Lou-ann Neel, repatriation specialist at the Royal BC Museum, is also an artist.

And the handbook, like these experts’ knowledge, is not static—it’s designed to grow and change through updates now and in future.

“It’s been designed to update as we go,” Lou-ann Neel tells Canadian Art. “As we go along, we are learning from different communities we are working with, because everybody’s so different—approaches to protocol, approaches to making initial connections and everything that follows. So our commitment to communities is that as we all learn, we will talk about whether we want to include any advice or case studies in the handbook.”

“As we go along, we are learning from different communities we are working with, because everybody’s so different—approaches to protocol, approaches to making initial connections and everything that follows,” says Lou-ann Neel.

The new book is currently in PDF format, but Neel hopes it will soon be available in HTML formats as well, which will make it easier to access and update. A small print run of the first edition should be ready in a couple of weeks.

The new book, and related “Repatriation 101” presentation at the Canadian Museums Association National Conference, have touched on a variety of topics many museums and communities may not have yet considered.

For instance, when repatriation workers at the Royal BC Museum were given the go-ahead to return some 700 ancestor remains, they found timelines for return had to be flexible due to fundraising, emotional, mapping and preparatory concerns, among others.

“Returning remains to their communities can create financial demands on some of the most impoverished communities in our country,” says Dianne Hinkley, Cowichan Tribes, in the new handbook. “Some may think, what do they need all that money for? I would suggest you recall or imagine arranging a funeral for one of your loved ones. Everything adds up: the cost of the undertaker, the casket, the flowers, the lunch or tea afterwards, the newspaper obituary. In our communities, the wrappers, the diggers, the singers, the cooks, the meals, the blankets. Funerals cost money. Repatriation and reburials of human remains are funerals in every sense.”

Lou-ann Neel also wants artists in particular to know that they have an important role to play in repatriation processes.

“As an artist, I’m really excited about talking more with artists,” Neel says. “Every time I go out to do outreach, I talk with every community about calling on their artists. Because a lot of the people tend to gloss over the fact that those things we’ve been calling ‘artifacts’ and ‘objects’ are artworks created by artists—and now the descendants of many of the people who created those original pieces in [museum] collections need to study those pieces.”

Neel says that artists have already, too, played a vital role in bringing intangible cultural heritage back to some potlatches—like forgotten songs relearned based on recordings in museum collections.

In some particular cases, artists may also be helpful in recreating a material piece for a family. “If a family’s mask is in a museum collection…one of the problems is that policy usually says you can only repatriate to a nation, which means a cultural centre or similar entity, but not an individual,” Neel explains. “Well, if an artist can recreate a piece for their family, they may not even have to do that negotiation.”

Neel continues, “For some, but not all, that could be ideal—especially if the piece is really frail and the nation is saying, for the safety of the piece, we want to leave it at the museum for now; let’s clarify who actually owns it, but let’s create a replica so we can bring it back into our ceremonies.”

Supporting artist residencies and visiting artist researchers, as well as helping Indigenous artists access more resources, are other opportunities Neel is excited to explore as repatriation processes unfold.

Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez visiting a collection of Inuit art. Rodriguez's ministry just announced funding to help museums meet Truth and Reconciliation Commission Call to Action 67. Photo: Twitter / @Rodriguez_Pab  Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez visiting a collection of Inuit art. Rodriguez's ministry just announced funding to help museums meet Truth and Reconciliation Commission Call to Action 67. Photo: Twitter / @Rodriguez_Pab

New Money Announced to Help Museums Meet TRC Call to Action

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its Calls to Action in 2012, it included four recommendations specifically for museums and archives.

Among them was Call to Action 67: “We call upon the federal government to provide funding to the Canadian Museums Association to undertake, in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, a national review of museum policies and best practices to determine the level of compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to make recommendations.”

Now, $680,948 in funding has been put toward that call to action. That money was announced Tuesday at the Canadian Museums Association National Conference by Gary Anandasangaree, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage.

“What this means that the CMA is really able to do some authentic work toward contributing to the reconciliation process,” says Sarah Pash, executive director of the Aanischaaukamikw – Cree Cultural Institute in Oujé-Bougoumou and a member of the Reconciliation Working Group at the CMA.

That authentic work will take many forms, says Pash, all with an effort to centre Indigenous community needs in museum contexts, says Pash.

“I think really what this [funding] does is it gives the opportunity to go out and ask Indigenous communities, How do we move forward? Really, it’s about bringing an Indigenous perspective into this,” says Sarah Pash.

“What will happen is we will be able to carry out consultation with Indigenous communities and Indigenous experts in the field, and also with the major Indigenous organization across the country in terms of what does it mean to talk about best practices in museology—in Indigenous museology, and in Western museology that’s taking a decolonizing and anticolonial stance,” says Pash.

Several questions will come up in this consultation, says Pash: “What do museums need to move forward in terms of repatriation? How are we really going to take authentic steps towards making sure that everything that’s called for in the new repatriation bill comes into being? What types of support are necessary in terms of funding in terms of thoughts about processes, inclusion of Indigenous protocols, discussion with Indigenous communities?”

Last year, when the new repatriation bill was introduced in the House of Commons, some museum workers in Canada stated that there were already frameworks available.

When asked about the need for new guidelines this week, Pash is clear on the necessity of more feedback from Indigenous communities specifically: “I think really what this [funding] does is it gives the opportunity to go out and ask Indigenous communities, How do we move forward? Do the guidelines we have in place make sense or do we need to revisit them from another perspective? Really, it’s about bringing an Indigenous perspective into this.”

And the need for better repatriation guidelines isn’t just evident in Pash’s own work; it also surfaced in a talking circle at the CMA conference this week where First Nations, Métis and settler curators and museum workers talked about their attempts to repatriate or to create workarounds for returning cultural treasures to communities—whether through memoranda of understanding, long-term loans, direct handoffs of cultural material, or otherwise. It was clear more support is needed.

“When you are talking about repatriation, yes, it’s about ceremony. Yes, it’s about our right to our own heritage and our own material culture. It’s about the fact that colonial processes have removed things of great significance from our own communities in ways that have been painful,” says Pash. “But it’s also about more practical issues, like how do we find out what’s in museum? And who’s going to pay for all these things to come home?”

In this latter respect, too, Pash says it is good to see the federal government step forward with funds toward the TRC Calls to Action around museums, including those that impact repatriation.

“Indigenous communities certainly can’t pay for all of these things to come home, because a lot of us are dealing with other issues that are really, really pressing right now—I mean, look at what’s happening at Kashechewan right now,” says Pash. “There is no way that Indigenous communities can front the bill for repatriation—so really that comes on the back of those who made repatriation necessary.”

With or without the new funding, there seems to be a lot museums can do to be more positive partners with Indigenous communities.

For one, museums can step up and help Indigenous communities understand what object of theirs might be in museum collections, says Pash: “Museums need to be very forthcoming in terms of saying, ‘This is what we have. This is where we think it’s from. This is where we know it’s from. What would you like us to do with it?”

A viewer considers <em>The Witness Blanket</em> at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. A viewer considers The Witness Blanket at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

New Agreement for Museum and Indigenous Artist Marks Fresh Approach

Another topic of less formal conversation at the Canadian Museums Association National Conference was the creation of a new agreement between the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg and Kwagiulth/Salish/Settler artist Carey Newman, who is currently Audain professor of contemporary art practice at the University of Victoria.

The agreement concerns the Witness Blanket, an art installation Newman made with more than 800 items from residential school sites and survivors across Canada.

“In museums we tend to want certainty and a very clear and well-established processes—‘that A and B and C will be the approach.’ But that’s not how relationships work,” says Angela Cassie.

Unlike other, more typical, museum contracts, this agreement incorporates both written documents and an oral ceremony, with both forms given equal weight. “We actually called it a collaborative stewardship agreement—because we wanted, even in the title, for that language to be clear,” said Angela Cassie, the CMHR’s senior vice-president, programs, exhibitions and public affairs, at the museum’s conference booth on Tuesday.

Legal rights are also vested with the artwork itself “as a living entity that honours the stories of survivors,” says a release. “I think part of what makes it unique is it treats the object as having rights as well,” says Cassie. “And so it’s not just between artist and museum, but it recognizes the object or objects [in it]….there’s living, breathing recognition of the object.”

The Witness Blanket was exhibited at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in 2015 and 2016, as well as at other museums and galleries in recent years. Now, the new agreement will see the museum care for and protect the 12-metre-long, cedar-framed artwork.

“Should some of our staff retire and move to other opportunities, part of their responsibility is to do a transfer of the relationship for those who follow after them,” explains Cassie. “So it’s different than ‘a file that gets handed over’—it’s a relationship that gets introduced.”

Like the Royal BC Museum and Haida Gwaii Museum’s new Indigenous Repatriation Handbook, the new agreement between the CMHR and artist Carey Newman has the flexibility to grow and change.

And that’s a set of conditions, unfortunately, that not many museums are yet comfortable with. “I think in museums we tend to want certainty and a very clear and well-established processes—‘that A and B and C will be the approach,’” says Cassie. “But that’s not how relationships work.”

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights will try to take some of these lessons into the future.

“From the way it was negotiated to what was being negotiated to how the agreement was completed—all of those facets are a step towards doing things a little bit differently,” says Cassie. “And this doesn’t mean this is now this is our template—that now, if there is another art object, we go to ‘Template X.’ But we have a different foundation, maybe, from which to start the conversation.”

This article was changed on April 22, 2019. The original copy spelled Haida Gwaii as “Haida G’waii.” And based on recommendations from the Council of the Haida Nation, English names have now been italicized when set alongside Haida names. 

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor of white settler Canadian (Irish and Ashkenazi) descent. She is also news and special sections editor at Canadian Art and has written for the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications. Sandals welcomes tips, corrections and comments anytime at leah@canadianart.ca.