Artifacts returned to Sask.'s Cumberland House after decades in B.C.

The beadwork on the jacket is spectacular.

Bright oranges and blues adorn its pockets, while its front and base are covered in intricate flowers and vines, assembled with artistry and detail representing centuries of tradition.

Now, after roughly 80 years, the jacket, alongside numerous other artifacts, have been brought home to Cumberland House after years in the possession of a family in Kelowna, B.C., roughly 1,700 kilometres from the Saskatchewan prairies.

Laura Chaboyer was one of the people who travelled to Kelowna to repatriate the artifacts, with the trip partially funded by the Metis Nation-Saskatchewan.

She said the trip wasn't about closure, but about connecting with the community's culture.

"It was such an emotional event," Chaboyer said in a phone interview as she was preparing to start the trip back to Saskatoon, which is about 350 kilometres southwest of the reserves that make up Cumberland House Cree Nation.

"We were all in tears when we actually seen the artifacts and seen the jacket — it was a very moving moment for all of us." 

Submitted by Laura Chaboyer

Other artifacts collected by the group included beaded moccasins, gloves and other pieces of Cree art, all of which were turned over the group. They'll find a home in a museum run by the Kwegich Historical Society in Cumberland House.

She hopes the artifacts will help inspire future generations to take on traditional beadwork and embrace Indigenous culture.

"We're connecting with our history. We're connecting with our ancestors and we have tangible items to showcase to our youth," she said. "Hopefully, they will take that and be proud of their history, be proud of their people, and stand up stronger."

The artifacts had been passed down for decades in the family of Kelowna woman Sharon Leveque. It's her understanding the gifts were given to her great-aunt while she was working in the community of Cumberland House as a nurse. Leveque said it's possible the gifts were given to her great-aunt from people she was treating there.

Submitted by Laura Chaboyer

The artifacts would eventually be handed down through the family until they landed with Leveque, who then tried to donate them to Kelowna Museums. That's when Kelowna curator Nikki Bowse helped connect her with those in Cumberland House.

"It's very hard to describe," Leveque said. "It's very, very emotional. It's absolutely exciting — beyond excited." 

She said it was important for her to ensure the artifacts were returned home, adding the entire situation was overwhelming.

"It's unbelievably heartwarming … to make sure that we have put it where it belongs," she said, strong emotion clear in her voice as she talked about how Bowse helped connect the two communities.

"It's just fabulous."

'A personal history'

Sherry Soll, the Metis Nation-Saskatchewan's minister of heritage and language, said it was important for the community, and the MN-S, to have the artifacts returned.

"It's our culture and it's bringing our own history back to where our people are living," she said.

The organization feels the return of the artifacts also plays an important role in reconciliation, Soll said, and it was a proud moment for both the community of Cumberland House and the Leveque family, which were connected through a piece of history that's still alive in the community today.

"We have elders in the community who are very excited about these items being returned, because they remember some of the elders that made some of the items that are being returned," she said.

"So it's a personal history for them, their own life experience being brought home."

Submitted by Laura Chaboyer

All of the artifacts will be on display at the Metis Nation-Saskatchewan fall legislative assembly, which runs in Saskatoon from Nov. 22 to 24 at Prairieland Park before moving to their new home in Cumberland House.

Leveque encouraged anyone with pieces of history in their possession to donate the items to a museum, saying there's no telling where a simple donation will lead. 

"Please don't forget. Donate," she said. "So many people want to sell this stuff for thousands of dollars. No. Donate it."