Conference talks repatriation of Indigenous ancestral objects from global museums

For Indigenous people in Canada, artifacts, sacred objects, and even ancestral remains have been taken away from their communities for scientific study or display in museums.

This week, a meeting in Kelowna addressed the topic of Indigenous repatriation with cultural leaders and artists who gathered with representatives of museums and archives from across Canada - and all over the world.

Organizers Jack Lohman, CEO of the Royal B.C. Museum, and Tracey Herbert, a CEO of the First People's Cultural Council and member of the Bonaparte First Nation, created the event, Indigenous Perspectives on Repatriation, because they want to return these objects to their rightful owners.

"A lot of the objects and materials in museums hold Indigenous knowledge that we need for the revitalization of our own arts, cultures and languages," said Herbert.

Cultural perspective

"This is not just about ancestral remains and grave goods, but we actually need to consider a whole raft," Lohman said.

"What about the research around these objects, should that not be repatriated too?

"The information, the catalogues, the tapes and oral history, the films; in today's society we look at much broader view."

Herbert says that at a young age, she experienced a display labelled "Indian child" showing the skeletal remains of an infant.

"I was quite young at the time and I thought is this where I could end up? It was shocking to me, so I was quite scared of museums for a while and even as a child I understood it was wrong."

The ancestral remains kept in drawers or examined for science are thought of as being disrespected by First Nations communities, says Herbert, and sees repatriating and taking care of these objects as an obligation to her heritage.

"It's really all about building relationships, having those conversations and sharing a point of view that is different from a Western anthropological point of view," she said.