Curators who work with Indigenous communities find themselves in between contradictory expectations and needs from their museum colleagues and community members. This is never a comfortable place to be, but it can be a space for learning.
Museums assume that physical preservation is the key goal for collections. Access to collections is also a key goal, but ‘access’ is usually defined as exhibition [behind glass], or through online images and information [digital/visual access] is sufficient, enabling them to continue to privilege physical preservation of objects.
These forms of access are insufficient for many Indigenous communities, especially regarding sacred items. People need to touch items to reconnect with ancestral knowledge and to strengthen identity in the present. People need to pray with sacred items to strengthen communities in the present. When access is denied by museums to such items, communities call for repatriation.
Blackfoot people have worked tirelessly for decades now to repatriate sacred items for use in ceremonies. Pipes, sacred bundles, and many items have been recovered and are used and cared for. The ceremonies in which these items are used have been passed down even through the most difficult eras. A great deal of love and self-sacrifice goes into caring for sacred items: you have to behave respectfully around them, pray with them daily, run the home in which they are kept very carefully.
And these items give back to the community. Sick people are brought up to them to be blessed during ceremonies. People ask the spirits associated with sacred items for strength, for healing, for help. People who did not grow up speaking Blackfoot learn the language in order to participate in ceremonies and to care for sacred items properly. Young people who might get into teenage trouble choose to join the sacred societies and learn and practice traditional values and ways of life instead.
Many items used in Blackfoot ceremonies now have been repatriated from museums, and still have their museum accession numbers painted on them. When I am able to attend ceremonies, I note these numbers with some amusement, and with a poignant sense of rightness: things are back in their right place, where they are understood and loved. These ceremonies are what the government and the churches tried to stamp out. The transfer of sacred items out of communities and into museums was part of that process of enforced assimilation. The transfer of such items back into community hands has been part of the healing process for Blackfoot people.
One time I was at a ceremony and the late Frank Weasel Head was assisting with it. At a certain point in the ceremony he came outside the tipi in which the ceremony was being conducted, holding a sacred pipe, to pray with it outdoors. The pipe looked to my curatorial eyes to be 18th century: it was wrapped in long braids of porcupine quills and was one of the old, long-stemmed ones. Frank’s hands were covered in red paint, made of bison fat and red mineral ochre, for spiritual protection, which is part of Blackfoot ceremonies. For a moment, my curatorial self fretted: he’s getting paint and fat all over the quillwork! We’ll never be able to clean it! That’s an 18th century pipe, it should be in a museum!
And then I saw the number painted on the side of the pipe. It had been in a museum. It had come home. Frank was using it for precisely what it had been made for. He was praying with it. He was praying really hard, begging for help for the sick people at the ceremony, thanking the Creator for life, thanking the beings who had brought us all together for the ceremony, asking for strength for everyone. Suddenly my mind shifted, and I understood that he was using the pipe with incredible respect and with tremendous love: that this was the right way to handle the pipe. The paint on the quillwork was evidence of that respect and love: it was not damage. It was very humbling. He was praying very intensely, and I didn’t think he saw me, which felt right, as I was a visitor and felt lucky just to be sitting on the outside edge of things. I didn’t want to distract him from important work for his own people.
After the ceremony, Frank sought me out. It had been a long day for him and he was very tired, but he marched up to me, grabbed me by the shoulders, shook me gently, and said: ‘Now do you understand why sometimes, some things have to come home?’ He had seen me, and he had seen that shift in my perception. I am grateful to him. I have never looked at museum objects in the same way since.
Every time I see things in the museum, I wonder whether the communities they come from have ever seen them since they left. I wonder how to bring things back together with the communities they came from, and think about how much might be achieved by doing so. They don't all have to leave the museum, and they don't have to leave forever. There are so many possibilities.