Virtually all arguments against repatriating Indigenous objects are rooted in white supremacy.
Hey reader, did you ever have your bike stolen?
I have more than once, and while I have never been successful in getting my bike back (thousands of them are stolen weekly in most cities, apparently), I’d like to take you through a thought experiment. Are you ready?
Let’s suppose somebody jacks your bike, and somehow you find the thief. You bust them, right there in the open, with your bike. You confront them. And they look you in the eye and say, “Yup. I’ve got your bike. But no, you can’t have it back. Because you don’t deserve it.”
Turns out this isn’t any old bike thief. This is a bicycle connoisseur, a lover of fine velocipedes, a Hipster Bicycle King, who has carefully amassed and curated (and I’m not using that term loosely) a spectacular collection of fine bikes—yours included. You should feel honoured.
And now, that connoisseur of bicycles looks you in the eye and informs you that mayyyyybe you can have it back… but not until you agree to care for it properly. You’ll need to oil the chain to his high standards. And keep it polished. And store it in a controlled climate. Under low lights.
But until then, don’t worry—you can visit it from time to time if you can afford to pay his admission fee.
The bicycle thief informs you that if you can’t meet those conditions, frankly, you’re not really worthy of that bike’s ownership, are you? That bike is safer with him. And that’s that. Good day, sir.
Now… how would you feel? I’m not sure how I’d feel but I know exactly what I’d do: I’d call the cops, press charges, and get my damn bike back. Because that’s some bullshit.
The Repatriation of Indigenous Objects
For a few years now I have been following the story of Crowfoot’s regalia. For those not from western Canada, Crowfoot was a historically important, highly respected Blackfoot leader and signatory to Treaty Seven. For reasons that seem to be historically unclear, these possessions ended up in the hands of a Northwest Mounted Police representative in the 1870s, and ultimately at a museum in Exeter, in the United Kingdom.
In 2013, members of the Blackfoot nations began petitioning the museum in Exeter for the objects’ return. And they were successful. Now, almost ten years later, Crowfoot’s things are home. I am deeply happy for the Blackfoot, and I am just so admiring and respectful of the tenacity of the individuals who spent countless hours and dollars in this quest.
Read more about it here.
It wasn’t easy for the Blackfoot. From what I can read of their efforts (and I don’t have a personal connection to the story), they had to mount a legal petition; they had to garner support from (white, academic) museum experts in Calgary. They had to prove to the museum in Britain that they could meet that institution’s curatorial and conservation standards.
I don’t mean to sound overcritical of this particular exchange, because by all reports, it has been a respectful and positive process, with lasting relationship building happening between the Blackfoot and the museum. I’m not saying it isn’t a good news story; it really reads joyfully and I wouldn’t take a thing away from that.
But let’s go back to the process that the Blackfoot, and all other Indigenous owners of removed objects, had to go through: they had to prove they were worthy. Worthy of receiving their own sacred objects; things that belonged to them.
The sheer Colonial entitlement of it all is staggering.
My fellow settler-colonizers, it’s time to just give the objects back. All of them. Without conditions. Without forcing the objects’ owners to conform to our standards. Anything less is paternalism at best, white supremacy at worst. They simply don’t belong to us. Period.
“But the objects do belong to us now. The acquisition was legal at the time.”
Legal does not equal ethical. When objects, like Crowfoot’s, were acquired under the shadow of a giant power differential (and honestly, virtually all Colonial artifact acquisition fits into this category) the historic legality of the deal should be secondary to the ethics of it. And today, if your museum’s arguments for keeping that object require you to stand behind the legal legitimacy of a plundering colonial superpower, you’re on thin ice. Give the object back. Seriously.
“We want to give it back but these people don’t meet our conservation standards.”
No, they probably don’t. And you know what? You don’t meet theirs, either. This is one of the points I rarely see acknowledged in the discussion of repatriation: that from the Indigenous perspective, the act of taking these objects and housing them in museum collections is an egregious breach of stewardship. I don’t profess to fully understand the protocols around the keeping of sacred objects, but I can pass on what I have been told directly in consultations with Indigenous people. I apologize if I am being overly simplistic here.
- In the Indigenous world, the distinction between animate and inanimate objects does not apply in the same way. It is simply different than in Euro-Western culture. An object is not just an object. We need to accept that.
- Objects in Indigenous culture reside within families, societies, or communities. Those people have deep responsibilities for the objects’ care. Caring for that object can involve actively interacting with it, to maintain its living relationship to people, place, and the spiritual world.
- To remove an object from the community or the family that has responsibility for it is highly problematic. To take that object and neglect it in a drawer somewhere is even more so. Turning that object into a catalogued artifact and then locking it away indefinitely has cultural, social, and spiritual repercussions that go far beyond the legal issues of ownership.
“But that object has value that transcends its original cultural context. It belongs to all humanity now.”
Careful on this one: your paternalism is showing. Think about it: you may have a beautiful home; it doesn’t belong to all humanity, does it? My bike, the one that got stolen at the top of this story, may have enduring social value. Does that make it someone else’s possession? It does not.
The arrogance of taking an object and declaring that its owners simply don’t value it enough is stunning. The idea that white academics need to save objects from their owners is the most Colonial point of view imaginable. No, you don’t know how to value an object better than the people who made it for its original purpose. Give it back.
No conditions. No requirements. Repatriation, now, please.
The carved poles of Haida Gwaii are some of the most transcendentally beautiful objects in the artistic world. Some of them are in museums, but some are still in Haida Gwaii, cared for by the Haida. And you know what? Those that are still on the land will simply return to the earth without conservation. They will be slowly subsumed by nature, and they will disappear, living in human memory alone. I find that just so simple and beautiful.
It turns out that it is entirely possible to value, appreciate, and even commemorate an object without conserving it. (And I’ve learned that this idea is tantamount to heresy among some museum professionals.)
Once we fully repatriate an object, a new relationship with its owners is possible.
If you’re a museum, and you really, really want to display an Indigenous object, there’s nothing saying that it can’t be done. But first, hand it over. Unreservedly. Give ownership without condition back to its original owners.
Once that’s done, ask nicely. Maybe they’ll lend it to you. Maybe you can reproduce it in some way—if the owners deem it appropriate.
Maybe the object can have a new life, free from the awful baggage of colonialism and white entitlement. Maybe it can live on in such a way that honours its original intent, while still having a presence in the museum world. One of the First Nations we worked with recently has, as part of their treaty, the ownership of their own objects—which they have the right to house at the Provincial Museum, taking advantage of all of their conservation resources. It’s a new kind of relationship.
Or maybe not.
Alternately, once you ask nicely, the owners might simply say no. You can’t display it. You can’t reproduce it. And no, they don’t need to explain why.
Because it belongs to them, not you.
Are you ready to hear that? Because I sure as hell am.