Culture

Canada’s museums are slowly starting to return Indigenous artifacts

The western world is under growing pressure to confront issues around the rightful ownership of art and artifacts. In Canada, that reckoning has just begun.

After surviving European incursions, colonialism and a 500-km journey from its home, a 171-year-old beaded hood must wait a bit longer before it can go back to Eeyou Istchee, James Bay Cree territory in northern Quebec. The pandemic has a way of interrupting plans—especially those involving travel. But the COVID-related delay is a drop in the bucket compared to the decades-long wait for this living piece of Cree heritage to be returned to its rightful owners.

Over the last 70 years, the rare and fragile hood had appeared in various exhibitions at the Lachine Museum in Montreal, was featured in showcases with other Indigenous artifacts in the 1950s and ’60s, and later restored in 2009. But researchers at the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute in Oujé-Bougoumou, Que., learned of its existence only a few years ago while scouring one of the museum’s catalogues. Made of cotton and wool, it is intricately decorated with colourful glass beads. In the 1850s, when it was made, the hood would have been an important part of Cree spiritual life, worn by its owner during weddings, or ceremonies marking the return of an important hunt.

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“It created this huge excitement amongst the entire team,” recalls Sarah Pash, the cultural institute’s former executive director, who was supervising the research team at the time of the discovery. “We just knew we had to bring it home. We knew that it belonged. That it needed to come back and be reunited with the community where it originated.”

The search that led to it was part of a painstaking initiative on the part of the Cree to reclaim artifacts that tell the story of their people—one that reflects a growing repatriation movement that could have a profound impact on museums and cultural institutions across Canada.

The Aanischaaukamikw team had put out a worldwide call asking museums for any information on their traditional hoods, which, since the start of the 20th century, had only existed in the memories of Cree elders.

Within Canada, members of the team travelled to museums in person, scanning exhibit catalogues and searching old records for any hints that might point the way to a surviving hood. The Lachine Museum seemed a promising source: part of its collection focuses on the fur trade that brought Europeans to James Bay Cree territory in the 17th and 18th centuries. The researchers obtained a paper copy of the institution’s exhibit catalogue, and were back at their cultural centre in Oujé-Bougoumou, about 500 km north of Montreal, when they came across the entry.

It was a moment loaded with historical resonance. The hood, after all, symbolizes a culture that colonial settlers had sought to suppress. “Many people in our communities had never seen one,” says Pash. Now they had a chance to repatriate it, and the city of Montreal, which owns the Lachine Museum, was eager to help. After Abel Bosum, the grand chief of the Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee), formally asked for the hood to be repatriated, the city of Montreal agreed. Mayor Valérie Plante said the return of an “item that carries such an important historic significance” was an act of reconciliation, and a step toward “aiming to establish government-to-government relations with one another.”

Once the pandemic allows for safe travel, the hood will be returned to the Cree Cultural Institute, where it will be housed permanently.

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The western world is under growing pressure to confront issues around the rightful ownership of art and artifacts as historians, Indigenous leaders and social justice advocates seek to address the historical wrongs that led to misappropriation—from the plundering of art by the Nazis to the systematic harvesting of Indigenous artifacts dating back to the earliest days of colonial exploration.

In Canada, that reckoning has just begun. A handful of the Nazi-looted pieces that made their way to this country after the Second World War have, in recent years, been restored to their original owners or their descendants, through what has been a mostly ad hoc process. In some cases, families hired private firms to track down and identify their missing artwork, and then spent years negotiating with museums to get their claim recognized. In others, art museums have identified Nazi-looted pieces through their own research and reached out to the rightful heirs to offer restitution. An even greater, more contentious challenge, though, will be repatriating the countless Indigenous pieces accumulated over the centuries by cultural institutions big and small, often in concert with private collectors.

The latter issue has taken on new urgency as political leaders vow to address the injustices of our past. However noble their intentions, their promises are undermined by the fact that Canadian museums still hold the spoils of colonization, their glass display cases lined with objects taken by European settlers as treasures of conquest.

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While the question of the Cree hood’s rightful ownership was dealt with amicably, resolving other cases promises to be a long and fraught process. Some institutions may delay or resist because parting with the disputed items would devalue their collections, but more likely because they don’t have the money to pay for lengthy, expert investigations. For certain items, determining provenance may prove impossible, frustrating demands for restitution. Were the pieces gifted? Traded fairly? Spirited away without a word? Flat-out stolen?

That’s if there’s a process to speak of at all. The main roadblock to large-scale restitution in Canada, say advocates and art experts, is the absence of a properly funded program to support museums investigating their own collections, while also helping Indigenous communities with the expense of recovering lost belongings and building facilities to house them. What’s more, there is no binding legislation requiring museums and galleries to return cultural artifacts, which means restitutions only happen in Canada if there’s goodwill on both sides.

Other countries have taken a more hands-on approach, and advocates note that, while there is broad-based agreement in Canada that wrongfully obtained pieces should be given back, those good intentions won’t amount to much unless the government makes the issue a priority.

“There is nobody who would say, ‘Well, Indigenous people don’t have a right to their heritage,’ ” says Pash. But she believes “authentic action” on the issue would require legislation that opens up collections to scrutiny, plus money to pay for the time, travel and expertise needed to assess the pieces. That, she says, along with “an attitude that says we have to provide Indigenous communities with knowledge about what’s in our collections, and ask them what they want us to do with them.”

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Certainly, views on repatriation in the museum and art worlds have shifted in recent years. Indigenous cultural experts trace the difference in perspective to the release of Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) findings in 2015. Noting the importance of protecting Indigenous traditional knowledge, the TRC called on Ottawa to provide funding for the Canadian Museums Association to review, in collaboration with First Nations peoples, the policies and practices of the country’s museums when it comes to preserving Indigenous culture.

The idea would be to determine how well those institutions are complying with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which says First Nations peoples have the right to practise and revitalize their cultural traditions.

The declaration, which Canada committed to in 2016, calls for mechanisms to redress the loss of cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken from Indigenous peoples “without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs.” One such mechanism, it says, may be restitution.

The TRC report prompted a mindset shift in Canada’s art museum world. Beforehand, even uttering the word “repatriation” in the museum sector was enough to cut short a conversation, says Mixalhítsa7 Alison Pascal, the curator at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre in Whistler, B.C. “It was like a cuss word. You could see everybody shut down. It was something they wouldn’t even discuss.”

But in the last six years, Pascal has noticed museum directors thinking more critically, regarding pieces not as treasures that they own, but items of intrinsic cultural value.

At a time when the public increasingly interprets history through the lens of social justice, that shift may be no less important to an institution’s reputation than is the worth of its collection. “Our public museums should not be trophy chests for illicitly acquired works,” says Sara Angel, an expert in art crimes and restitution and an adjunct professor at York University in Toronto. “Nazi-looted works of art are the last prisoners of the Holocaust and pieces tainted by genocide. Plundered works of Indigenous art represent a theft based on colonial imperialism and disregard for this country’s First Nations.”

As it stands, Ottawa has taken a couple of steps toward its obligations under the TRC and the UN declaration, committing $1 million toward a national review of museum policies, and for workshops, online learning and bursaries to develop best practices in the preservation and presentation of Indigenous culture.

But Angel says the institutions themselves could be doing more. “There is no museum in Canada whose funding comes entirely from Heritage Canada,” she says. “If a museum director wants to look into the provenance of their collection, they can find financial support from sources other than Heritage. It’s a question of prioritization.”

Easier said than done, of course. Whatever the prevailing attitude toward restitution, much of Canada’s cultural sector is built around a fundamental assumption that Euro-centric experts are the authorities when it comes to identifying, preserving, storing and displaying cultural objects.

Pascal with the returned dentalium shells (Photograph by Morgan Tsetta)

Pascal with the returned dentalium shells (Photograph by Morgan Tsetta)

Pascal recalls being rebuffed once after asking to borrow a woven cedar root violin case from a major museum in Vancouver, because the institution decided her centre in Whistler lacked proper humidity controls. It’s one of the many obstacles encountered by Indigenous repatriation advocates: Canadian institutions sometimes believe they know how to care for an artifact better than the community that made it.

“Our cultural pieces aren’t meant to be kept forever and ever,” Pascal explains. “A lot of our carvings and baskets are made of natural materials, and a lot of them would decompose over time and start to fail.” Her community sees that transformation as a part of an artifact’s natural life cycle, and an opportunity to teach others how to make a replacement.

Dentalium shells (Photograph by Morgan Tsetta)

The dentalium shells (Photograph by Morgan Tsetta)

Bit by bit, that message seems to be getting across. A few years after Pascal’s request was denied, the museum agreed to repatriate that same cedar root case to Lil’wat Nation. She points to another success story—a recent repatriation from the Sunshine Coast Museum & Archives in Gibsons, B.C. When the pandemic forced the museum to close to the public, staff there decided to launch a survey of the collections. They came across some Lil’wat artifacts and contacted Pascal at the cultural centre in Whistler. Among the items found: 12 pieces of dentalium shell that would have adorned traditional Lil’wat clothing.

They were formally repatriated to the cultural centre in 2020. It was, says Sunshine Coast Museum curator Matthew Lovegrove, “a very tangible way we can support efforts of reconciliation, and at the same time address some of the harms that have occurred through colonization.”

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It is not always possible, though, to draw such a straight line to the rightful owners, as recent experience with Jewish-owned art looted during the Holocaust shows: when provenance is in dispute, repatriation becomes an arduous and contentious process.

After the war, tens of thousands of pieces of art seized by the Nazi regime made their way into the private art market and, eventually, into museum collections across Europe and overseas. Only four have been returned by Canadian institutions.

The most recent restitution, while unquestionably well-intended, wound up stirring still more controversy. In response to a claim on behalf of a family in Britain, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) agreed in the fall of 2020 to return Still Life with Flowers, a painting by Jan van Kessel the Elder. The painting had once belonged to Dagobert and Martha David, who, while living in hiding under German occupation in Belgium, were forced to sell all of their possessions in order to survive.

Still Life with Flowers, c 1660, oil on panel by Jan van Kessel II (Courtesy of Commission for Looted Art in Europe)

Still Life with Flowers, c 1660, oil on panel by Jan van Kessel II (Courtesy of Commission for Looted Art in Europe)

The AGO agreed to return the painting to a surviving family member, but when news of the restitution became known, a foundation representing the estate of Jewish art dealer and Holocaust survivor Max Stern came forward to make a competing claim, suggesting the gallery might have made a mistake. That dispute is yet to be settled.

Anke Kausch, a leading expert in Canada on Holocaust-era provenance research, says such confusion is bound to occur as long as the status quo continues. She estimates the number of Nazi-looted art pieces in this country’s art museums at a few dozen, but notes that no exhaustive audit has been done.

In March, Kausch was contacted by a Canadian museum to investigate whether a work was Nazi-looted. She can’t disclose details until the investigation is complete, but says it is “quite likely” to end up being the fifth Holocaust-related restitution in Canada.

Kausch stresses that “it’s up to the museums to look for skeletons in their closets,” but adds that, in reality, most only have the resources to work in “damage control” mode, reacting and investigating only when someone submits a claim that challenges the ownership of a piece of art.

Kausch was also the author of a set of guidelines meant to help museums do a better job at identifying Nazi-looted art. Called the Canadian Holocaust-Era Provenance Research and Best Practice Guidelines, the 2017 report was the culmination of a pilot project led by the Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization (CAMDO) and funded by Heritage Canada.

in 2013, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts returned The Duet by Gerrit van Honthorst to the original owner’s family (Courtesy of MBAM)

in 2013, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts returned The Duet by Gerrit van Honthorst to the original owner’s family (Courtesy of MBAM)

But even with Ottawa’s modest commitments to date, many curators and museum operators say they simply can’t pay for the time and expertise to investigate their collections for wrongfully obtained pieces. “We’re barely keeping our chins above water, in just looking after the objects [in our collections] physically,” says Josephine Mills, who was the chair of that Holocaust repatriation pilot project, and is now the director of the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery in southern Alberta. “Any reputable gallery director, if you know you have [stolen or looted art], is acting on it, removing it from the collection and returning it where it needs to go.”

Experts and curators do credit one Canadian museum with leading the charge in terms of Holocaust-era repatriation: the National Gallery of Canada. The reason for its progress? A healthy budget. “We have much better funding than some of our smaller institutions,” says Anabelle Kienle Poňka, associate curator of European and American art at the gallery. “I think what the smaller Canadian institutions struggle with is they simply don’t have the people on staff. You need a dedicated researcher.”

Still, other countries have taken concrete legislative steps, forcing institutions to comply if they want to keep receiving government money. The United States, for one, has had a policy in place since 1990: under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, federally funded institutions are required to return Native American remains, sacred objects and cultural items.

Canada came close to establishing a repatriation program a couple of years ago, with Nova Scotia MP Bill Casey’s private member’s bill calling for the development of a national strategy to promote and support the repatriation of Indigenous belongings. In 2019, it passed unanimously in the House of Commons, only to die on the Order Paper when the election was called.

Later that year, then-heritage minister Pablo Rodriguez was mandated to create an Indigenous repatriation framework, per the TRC recommendations and the UN declaration on Indigenous rights. In a preliminary step, Ottawa committed $1 million to review museums’ policies. But then the pandemic hit and the work was delayed. The review, which is being carried out by the Canadian Museums Association in collaboration with Indigenous peoples, is expected to provide a report by March 2022.

In the interim, advocates, museum leaders and First Nations organizations are doing what they can, forging a new spirit of grassroots co-operation while they wait for a federal framework or program. And when all parties are on the same page, it turns out, restitutions can go smoothly—even when there’s no detailed record of chain of possession.

In the case of the Cree hood, Pash notes that even the Aanischaaukamikw team has “no idea” how the hood ended up in the museum. All that’s certain is that the original hood-bearer in the 19th century was a woman named Jane Gunner, the wife of the chief of the Mistissini community, and in 1948 a private Montreal collector named Fred Russell Hamilton donated it to the museum.

How Hamilton came by it may never be known. But to Pash and her group, that’s a question for another day. More important to them now is that, after this rare and cherished belonging spent seven decades in a museum far from home, someone heard their voices, and saw fit to do the right thing.


This article appears in print in the July 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “When it’s time to give back.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.