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Love Thy Neighbour: Repatriating Precarious Blackfoot Sites

Authors: Cynthia M. Chambers & Narcisse J. Blood

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Áahkapohto’op: Bringing home (Repatriation)

As settler states, such as Canada, dispossessed indigenous peoples of their land, Sissons (2005) argues that these governments also assumed ownership of the people themselves. Rather than citizens of Canada, Indigenous people belonged to Canada–“our native people.” By extension, their families, belongings and remaining resources, including land and water, also became state property, as did the children. People’s everyday and sacred things became “artefacts” housed in public buildings; they were now “historic resources” owned, preserved and interpreted by the state.i Kitáóowahsinnoon, with the exception of the reserves, belonged to the Crown or private landowners. Settler governments removed Niitsítapiiksi’s children from their families, as families and by extension their children were collective possessions of the state, and sent the children to residential schools, and adopted them “out” to unknown persons in faraway communities.

It might appear that the Siksikáítapiiksi response to this dispossession is to refuse to face the future until the wrongs of the past have been re-dressed. But this is not the case. While the past must be taught, remembered and understood, the direction being faced is the future.

The appropriation, transformation, and reappropriation of indigeneity–whether it be of objects, identity, children, land or sovereignty....[is] directed toward the future. ...Nowhere in the indigenous world are cultural reappropriations regarded as returns to the past; rather, they are always reimaginations of the future. (Sissons, 2005, p. 11)

Siksikáítapiiksi imagine a future where they have repatriated all that from which they have been dispossessed. Repatriation, the root of which is that the Latin patria, literally means to “return to the fatherland.” Repatriation became a common English word amongst Siksikáítapiiksi after the United States first implemented the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) (Holt, 2001; Jones, 1995). This legislation sought to return back to tribal authority jurisdiction for large numbers of Native American children apprehended and adopted out of their community. Since the United States government passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990, the word repatriation has been associated with returning certain cultural items to their original communities (Fine-Dare, 2002). Following the passage of ICWA and NAGPRA, Káínaa (Blood Tribe) actively pursued the return of children and ceremonial items removed to the United States, where a third of Siksikáítapiiksi live on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. Since NAGPRA, Káínaa have successfully repatriated close to ten nináímskaahkóyinnimaanistsi medicine-pipe bundles; about fourteen moo’pi’stáánnisstsi (beaver bundles); and several mootókiiksi (Buffalo Women) headdresses, kana’tsomiitaiksi (Brave Dogs) and ka’koyiiksi (Pigeon Dove Society) bundles. Because the bundles are living beings, people care for them and speak of them, as if they were children. So there is a certain ironic resonance between the repatriation of the bundles and the children. And the people know that many bundles are still missing, most in the possession of private collectors not bound by NAGPRA. And the people know that many of the children are still missing, too. While many Siksikáítapiiksi adopted out were found many more are still not located living their lives without knowing who they are, who their relations are, or where they come from.

Siksikáítapiiksi’s efforts to repatriate cultural items and children from the United States influenced their negotiations with the government of Alberta. In 2000, the province passed the First Nations Sacred Ceremonial Objects Repatriation Act, which allowed First Nations to apply for repatriation of sacred ceremonial objects from the Glenbow Museum and the Royal Alberta Museum (Government of Alberta, 2000b). Under this new law, museums have given long-term loans of several bundles to their original communities. Negotiations for the return of other bundles are ongoing.

Archeologists have been dedicated to “saving things whose purpose was fulfilled primarily in the past” (Watkins, 2000, p. 7). It could be said that the “historical resources professionals,” as defined in the Alberta legislation referred to above, have the same mission. While Siksikáítapiiksi share an interest in preserving and protecting places and things whose origins are in the past, they do not hold that the purpose of these places and things remains in the past. One of the aims of repatriation–of sacred material, for example–is to bring things home, to put them back into circulation, to allow them to fulfill their purpose of helping people. Exiled to the museums and university storehouses, scientists with technology preserve and protect “artefacts.”ii Once returned home, and placed in the care of their relations, sacred Siksikáítapiiksi “artefacts” are returned to the use for which they were intended. At home, the bundles are once again (animate) kin relations who participate in ceremony, offer protection and answer prayers. Through the ceremonies, the bundles care for and protect the people, as the people care for and protect them.

i Much of Siksikáítapiiksi material culture remains outside of the purview of the state, living as high-end commodities within exclusive, private collections and the sometimes underground market economy of art dealing peopled with brokers, dealers and buyers.

ii As mentioned, not all “artefacts” become state property, protected by science. Traded amongst private collectors, bundles and other Siksikáítapiiksi materials are auctioned to the highest bidder.

Next Section: Repatriation as Model for Siksikáítapiiksi’s...

Last updated: March 31, 2009
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