Museum anthropologists always look for the politics in the relations between museums and indigenous peoples, the relations of power, what is unsaid as well as what is said. In the last few weeks, there have been several articles in Canadian media sources about B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s call for the return of objects to BC. The most recent ones [http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/christy-clark-spoke-on-ancestral-remains-without-haida-input-curator/article30637521/] clarified that the Haida nation was not consulted about this call before it went out. The reason that the Haida Nation was deliberately excluded from Clark’s ‘consultation’ process on the repatriation issue is because Clark supports oil and gas development, and the Haida oppose it. Clark’s dramatic call for returns of heritage materials, and ‘consultation’ process, is a means of building an Aboriginal support base in BC despite her intent to proceed with oil and gas development that would permanently damage lands and resources on which Aboriginal people depend for survival. It might also be seen as an attempt to build a support base of non-Aboriginal people who would then dismiss Aboriginal concerns about energy and sovereignty (‘what else do they want? We’ve given them their stuff back!’).
The Haida Nation has the best track record for repatriation of all Aboriginal nations in Canada; they have brought home nearly 500 ancestral remains. They have done so in a thoughtful, respectful way that has enabled them to build constructive bridges with museums. Other Aboriginal nations, and the Province, would benefit from working with the Haida Repatriation Committee to discuss their experience (www.repatriation.ca). Museums and Indigenous peoples can work together productively around repatriation: as I have learned, largely from Haida people, everyone benefits from such relationships. Repatriation is necessary in many cases. Getting material heritage circulating through loans is also necessary: many Aboriginal communities don’t have facilities to care permanently for material heritage, but access can be provided in many ways. And whatever stance one might take on the oil/gas industry, access to heritage items is too important to Aboriginal survival to be caught up in this kind of political game.
If Premier Clark is serious about providing access to material heritage held in museums outside the country for Aboriginal peoples, I would invite her office to consider funding the first loan from UK museums to the Haida Gwaii Museum. There are important early historic collections of Haida material heritage in the UK, and we need to find a way to make them accessible to Haida people. To get rolling, this project will need between £15-20K to pay for standard loan fees (c.£6K to Haida Gwaii), a new case for the Haida Gwaii Museum that provides enhanced environmental controls and security for international loans, and time and costs for a museum staff member to stay for a few weeks and facilitate handling sessions out of case before placing the item on display. Once the program is up and running, it will be much less expensive to run. Objects can be rotated every few years and can provide access to the tens of thousands of B.C. Aboriginal artefacts in museums around the world, while strengthening relationships between those nations and museums to improve public interpretation.
Everyone needs access to material heritage. Let’s find creative solutions that strengthen relationships in the process.