Collection of Mi'kmaw artifacts coming home after being kept at U.S. museum for decades

·5 min read
These are Castle Bay twist baskets from Nova Scotia. Members of the Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre have been able to reconnect families and practices back to the objects. This weave is possibly linked to the Herney family in Castle Bay, Unama’ki (Cape Breton). (National Museum of the American Indian/Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre - image credit)
These are Castle Bay twist baskets from Nova Scotia. Members of the Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre have been able to reconnect families and practices back to the objects. This weave is possibly linked to the Herney family in Castle Bay, Unama’ki (Cape Breton). (National Museum of the American Indian/Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre - image credit)

A collection of Mi'kmaw artifacts that has been stored at a museum in the U.S. for decades will be returning to Nova Scotia/Mi'kma'ki by 2025.

More than 500 items, including regalia, quillwork and baskets, have been kept at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian — first in New York and now in Washington, D.C. — after being procured by American anthropologists who studied and visited with First Nations communities in the early 1900s.

Now, more than a century later, a team from the Mi'kmawey Debert Cultural Centre in Debert, N.S., has begun working at the museum to carefully catalog and conserve the items so they can be brought home — as part of what the museum calls a "shared stewardship agreement."

"There's nothing more important to us than the Mi'kmaw community taking care of its own collections," Tim Bernard, the executive director of the cultural centre, told CBC Radio's Mainstreet on Thursday.

National Museum of the American Indian/Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre
National Museum of the American Indian/Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre

"We're very appreciative of museums and cultural institutions that have done it, but they are items to them that are part of a collection that sit on a shelf, but to us, they're part of who we are."

Bernard has been working to get the collection returned to Mi'kma'ki since 1999, when he first discovered the items were being kept at the U.S. museum. That's when he started building a relationship with the museum's director in hopes the items could be returned "for our people to have and enjoy."

After many discussions and trips to visit the collection, a memorandum of understanding between the centre and the museum was reached in 2012 and a long-term loan strategy was brought forward — rather than repatriation, which has specific regulations in the U.S.

This means the collection will be lent to the cultural centre in Debert under agreements that can be renewed.

"The whole point of those loans is to get belongings back in their community and more accessibility," said Kelly McHugh, the head of conservation at the National Museum of the American Indian.

"The intent is to keep things in communities as long as they're needed so there's not really a definitive end I would say, but the relationship is constantly ongoing."

Bernard said he's satisfied with this, adding that the goal is to get the collection back to Mi'kma'ki as it's "been away for long enough."

Team began working at museum this spring

In April, two curatorial associates from the cultural centre temporarily moved to D.C. from Nova Scotia to start working with the collection.

Kamden Nicholas of Pictou Landing First Nation and Basil Johnson of Potlotek First Nation will catalog each item by taking photographs and writing detailed descriptions with the help of conservators at the museum.

While there are about 500 Mi'kmaw artifacts in the collection, most contain several pieces, which means Nicholas and Johnson are sifting through over a thousand individual items.

They'll be in D.C. until the end of July, but will return in September for another four months to finish the work.

Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre
Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre

Johnson, a former Potlotek band councillor who gave up his position to work in D.C., said it was overwhelming to see the collection for the first time. He said he wants his community to have the same opportunity.

"The work that we're doing down here is really extremely important to allow our community members to realize that we still have our cultural artifacts, items, our identity ... it's so important to have all of these items and this work to be done," Johnson said.

Nicholas, who is completing a bachelor of arts degree with a major in archeology at Memorial University, said she's lucky to work directly with the artifacts.

"To actually come here and see them and hold them and touch them and see them in person and see their actual size and stature and to feel them and the energy that they hold — it's amazing," Nicholas said.

She said the collection includes tools, splint baskets, regalia, beadwork and even an entire wigwam that's been disassembled.

It's unclear how old the items are, but she said they were all collected between 1910 and 1930 — making most of them at least 100 years old.

"The really interesting thing about our things and the way that we look at them is, our objects have a life and so when they deteriorate, that's part of their life and that might just be the path that they go on," she said.

That's why the team is also required to determine whether the items are safe to travel — but the decision is ultimately left to the museum practitioners with guidance from members of First Nations communities in Mi'kma'ki.

National Museum of the American Indian/Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre
National Museum of the American Indian/Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre

Bernard said he's grateful for Nicholas and Johnson and their efforts to bring the collection home for all First Nations to see and interact with, rather than needing to travel to the U.S. to do so.

"I want our people to experience that same experience that we have … I also want to make sure that our people don't have to jump on a plane, don't have to go through the hoops that we have to go through," he said.

"And that's part of building Mi'kmawey Debert. Our keeping house will allow community members to come and ask to see certain items because we can relate these items directly back to communities and families. They can't do that in D.C."

National Museum of the American Indian/Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre
National Museum of the American Indian/Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre

Bernard said although there's plenty of work still to be completed at the centre and with the collection, the whole team is excited for its arrival and eventual display in 2025.

"We'll have a space, we'll have an opportunity for researchers, for community members to come in and sit and look and be part of those collections, to share their stories and what they know, what did their parents, what did their grandparents, great grandparents know about this?" he said.

"So definitely, we're headed in a good way, to a good place and we can't wait to celebrate the return of this collection — as the project is titled Home to Mi'kma'ki."

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