Since last May, I have been curating for the Pitt Rivers Museum from a very different place. I am now based in Canada, and respectfully acknowledge that my home is on the treaty and traditional territory of the Mississauga Anishinaabeg near Nogojiwanong (Peterborough), in Ontario. Territorial acknowledgements such as this are common at universities, museums and government offices. They are used to open meetings and conferences, to greet and orient visitors to museums, to remind people that Canada is in the fraught process of trying to acknowledge and do something about its colonial heritage.
|Wild rice in winnowing tray. Image from Black Duck Wild Rice.|
This really is a fraught process. Last weekend, 300 people crowded into a local hall near my home for an acrimonious meeting called by a local association of second home owners. They are irate that an Anishinaabe man has been seeding wild rice on their lake and harvesting it with commercial equipment. The expanded rice beds clog the waterways for motor boats and have changed the clear, rocky waterscapes familiar to and beloved by cottage owners. Wild rice, manomin, is an ancient staple of Anishinaabe diet but rights to harvest it have been unclear under historical treaties and contested by settlers. The rice harvest, just finished, has raised these disputes again. Tensions have been very high over the past decade in this region about the wild rice issue, so much so that the issue has been described as a war in some media. Anishinaabe author Drew Hayden Taylor has written a play, now touring with a major Canadian company, called “Cottagers and Indians” about the issue. The “Save Pigeon Lake” website, put up by cottage owners, is uncompromising in its demand for the removal of the rice beds and cessation of Indigenous harvesting.
|Pitt Rivers Museum 1918.104.22.168,2.|
So what do we do in the UK with collections that reference such local political tensions? The Pitt Rivers Museum holds a wooden mortar and pestle (accession number 1922.214.171.124,2) collected by staff anthropologist Beatrice Blackwood in 1939 in Minnesota. Someone has written the word “potogan” on one side of the mortar: boodaagan, the Ojibwe (Anishinaabemowin) word meaning a mortar for wild rice. The tools are not polished, not finely made, but are smoothed with use. They’re not especially beautiful or decorative. They’re powerful, though, speaking to long traditions of harvestingmanomin, and to the politics of resource use around the Great Lakes. The meeting near my new home is just the latest manifestation of such settler colonial attempts to control and eliminate Indigenous peoples, another long tradition experienced by Anishinaabe people.
As the equivalent of territorial acknowledgement, could museums in the UK (and in Canada) acknowledge colonial histories and their legacies, the struggles around the materials museums display? Saying ‘Ojibwa,’ ‘wild rice mortar and pestle,’ ‘wood,’ ‘collected by Beatrice Blackwood’ doesn’t seem enough. Such language denies history and politics and the roles of museums within these. Perhaps we could say, ‘Mortar and pestle for processing wild rice (manomin), Ojibwe (Anishinaabeg) people, Minnesota. Collected by Beatrice Blackwood, 1939. Settlement and treaties with British, Canadian and American governments have made it difficult to harvest this nutritious traditional food today.’ Even something as simple as a single contextual sentence in a label is key to shifting historical collections into the space of ongoing community ties, politics, and meanings.
On the Kawarthas wild rice controversy, see:
Clifford Skarstedt, https://www.thepeterboroughexaminer.com/news-story/9004961-more-than-300-attend-public-meeting-over-concerns-about-wild-rice-planting-in-the-kawartha-lakes/, 4 November 2018.