Repatriation of sacred objects should be overseen by Indigenous committee

Tuesday, May 31st, 2016 3:12pm


There are very few First Nations with the facilities to properly and securely store or display sacred objects~ archaeologist and historian Joe Fromhold and CEO of the Mountain Cree Band.

By Shari Narine
Sweetgrass Contributing Editor

May 30, 2016.

An Indigenous oversight committee must drive the repatriation of Indigenous sacred ceremonial objects, says archaeologist and historian Joe Fromhold and CEO of the Mountain Cree Band.

Last Thursday, Culture and Tourism Minister Ricardo Miranda introduced Bill 22 in the Legislature. An Act to Provide for the Repatriation of Indigenous Peoples’ Sacred Ceremonial Objects is the first step, says the government, in ensuring that all Indigenous communities can reclaim sacred ceremonial objects in provincial collections.

Fromhold is wary of the government’s announcement. He says there is too much that is of yet undefined. What, he asks, does the government classify as a sacred ceremonial object and what will consultation, which is supposed to occur during the summer months, look like?

He says these questions should be answered by an Indigenous oversight committee and not the government.

“We are strong believers that these kinds of things should be overseen by the Aboriginal community, that there be some kind of committee or management team that makes the ultimate decisions and (those) decisions… (are) followed through in the administration by government agency,” said Fromhold.

The Mountain Cree Band is in the process of establishing the Association of First Nations Archaeologists and Historians, which would, in part, advocate for First Nations positions on cultural history and cultural property.

An Indigenous oversight committee should be comprised of traditionalist practitioners and not become a political institution, says Fromhold.

“The Elders and practitioners tend to look at it from a different view point than … the political or socialized people,” he said. He holds that Elders and practitioners move forward based on consensus, while political people need votes and a power-base.

There are numerous other issues an oversight committee would have to address, says Fromhold.

The ownership of a sacred object is chief among those decisions and who has the right to make claims. Disputes between communities must be resolved and Fromhold says the resolution could be as simple as who has the proper facility to house the object. However, he holds that is it “beyond us” to determine which individual or descendant has claim to a sacred object.

The ceremony in which a sacred object is returned must be decided by the community, he adds.

Once a sacred object is returned to the community, the decision then has to be made as to whether or not it is to be put back into use or if it is to be stored or displayed. There are very few First Nations with the facilities to properly and securely store or display sacred objects, says Fromhold, and even fewer have the ability to preserve a sacred object.

“From the museum point of view that would be an issue – proper storage, proper security, proper handling. From the traditionalist point of view there is always the view that these are given to us on a temporary basis by the Great Spirit. They’re inspirational and not necessarily meant to last forever,” said Fromhold.

Fromhold is ambivalent on whether the province should take action to have sacred objects in private collections repatriated as well.

“Those people who have gone to the trouble and expense of collecting and keeping these things have a certain right to retain at least some kind of control over what happens to them,” he said.

Fromhold’s family has been collecting Indigenous items that are of particular interest to his family or the Mountain Cree for years so that they don’t become dispersed.

That is also how he views museum collections and collections by non-Indigenous peoples.

Many of the sacred objects were taken from the Indigenous peoples when reservations were formed as a means for the Crown to “replace” the existing religion and culture, says Fromhold. Other sacred objects – and Indigenous items – were given to the Crown through to the 1950s in exchange for money. 

“They were offered money … and … in many cases, the money does have a certain attraction, especially when you’re starving,” said Fromhold.

Some items were given as gifts and others were stolen.

Fromhold says there is no records as to how many sacred objects are in the possession of the province. While museums list Indigenous items that they hold, there is no indication as to whether or not those items are sacred.

In a review of current statutes by the Alberta Justice and Solicitor General in March 2013, it was determined that Section 2 of the First Nations Sacred Ceremonial Objects Repatriation Act, which previously provided the means for the repatriation of sacred ceremonial objects, had not been proclaimed. Bill 22 is, in part, a response to correct that.