This summer, I was privileged to spend time with colleagues rehousing the human remains at the Museum’s off-site storage facility. This was necessary as part of the move of collections out of that facility, and also in preparation for repatriating ancestral remains, which we have taken the decision to do. We were working with crania from across North America, many of them culturally modified. Some of them have been at Oxford for centuries. My colleagues and I removed each cranium from its box, enhanced the museum record for the individual, and placed each one in a new box, cushioned with acid-free tissue.
Before we began this work, I responded to requests from Indigenous colleagues and spoke to the spirits of the ancestors. I told them who we were, what we were going to do with them, and why. I told them that their people loved them very much and that we would try to make it possible for them to go home. I thanked them for teaching us as museum professionals and said that we would send food to them through the fire. I used the right to smudge that was transferred to me by Blackfoot ceremonial people and smudged the space to cleanse it. Later, we lit a small barbecue and drawing on Haida cultural ways, sent traditional North American Indigenous foods to the spirits through the fire: wild rice, salmon, maple sugar, wild strawberries.
University Health and Safety was not initially happy with the idea of smudging or food burning. They had never seen it before, and had ideas of billowing smoke inside the storage area and wafting around Oxford. In the end we invited them to be present, and they were incredibly moved and helpful. Everyone learns from these opportunities.
It felt odd to do these ceremonies without Indigenous colleagues present. I am wary of cultural appropriation, and do not do such things unless there has been a direct request to do so and no way to bring Indigenous people over to do such work. In this situation, I was able to consult with several colleagues from across North America beforehand, and then drew on long experience and teaching from several Indigenous mentors to smudge and send food to the ancestors. The process made me feel more than ever that we need stronger bridges between UK museums and Indigenous communities. Repatriation is one way to build those, and we are now researching the origins of as many remains as possible so they might some day go home.