Monthly Archives: April 2009

A final excerpt from “The Return of Cultural Treasures” by Jeanette Greenfield

The project for which ATR was created comes to a close tomorrow. Though it is by no means the end of my writing this blog, I did want to conclude this first phase with one last excerpt from The Return of Cultural Treasures. It is a quote from 19th-century American author Nathaniel Hawthorne.

[Yesterday] … I visited the British Museum; an exceedingly tiresome affair. It quite crushes a person to see so much at once; and I wandered from hall to hall, with a weary and heavy heart, wishing (Heaven forgive me!) that the Elgin marbles and the frieze of the Parthenon were all burnt into lime, and that the granitic Egyptian statues were hewn and squared into building-stones, and that the mummies had all turned to dust, two thousand years ago; and, in time, that all the material relics of so many successive ages had disappeared with the generations that produced them. The present is too much burdened with the past. We have not time, in our earthly existence, to appreciate what is warm with life, and immediately around us; yet we heap up all these old shells out of which human life has long emerged, casting them off forever. I do not see how future ages are to stagger onward under all this dead weight, with the additions that will be continually made to it.

With all due respect to Mr. Hawthorne, I think the past is a noble and useful thing to examine, but I agree that putting so much emphasis on old things, to put it bluntly, can be detrimental. Both to the museum, who can forget that some objects in its collection are related to real, living people, but also to the indigenous community trying to get this ‘old stuff’ back, who is in danger of forgetting that their culture is evolving and that they must look into the future as much as they do into the past.

[[Hi Sue! Feel free to navigate the site however you like, but in case you want to read it chronologically, go to the first post and follow the links forward.]]


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First episode of We Shall Remain now available online

In response to my earlier post about this mini-series, I wanted to share that the first episode of the PBS American Experience mini-series We Shall Remain is now available online. I’m looking forward to watching it.

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Totem: The Return of the G’psgolox Pole

Totem: The Return of the G’psgolox Pole in its entirety is viewable on the National Film Board of Canada website. The film and the story of the pole struck me. The distance that the pole travelled, from BC to Sweden, is just extraordinary. I often forget that First Nations cultural material is not just contained in North American museums, but all over the world. I was also struck by the cooperation between the Haisla and the National Museum of Ethnography, with the construction of replicas to satisfy both parties.

As the film concludes, the pole has yet to be returned to the Haisla because the Swedish Museum requires them to build a facility to preserve it, which they can’t afford. Updated information from says that the pole has finally been returned to Kitamaat, but doesn’t say whether it has been erected once more or not.

From the Musée du Quai Branly’s symposium on human remains and repatriation, here is Eva Gesang-Karlstrom’s (Director General of the National Museums for World Culture, in Götteborg, Sweden) perspective on the episode.

At least fifteen years ago the Swedish government decided that the totem pole should go back to the Haisla people in Canada. But it was a very difficult decision, both for the Haisla people and for the Museum of Ethnography because of following a requirement that the pole be stored in a way that ensures its preservation. The Haisla people had to find a house for indoor storage. And during 15 years there was different contacts between the Haisla people and the Museum of Ethnography but also between the Haisla people and the Same people in Sweden. and during those years the museum also received a gift from the Haisla, a replica of the pole, which we have raised in front of the museum. But I think it is very important the pole [… ?] in front of the museum. But I think that the answer of the government is complicated, because to build a museum is not in the Haisla people’s tradition, and they cannot afford it. But today the pole is back and it is preserved in the box that we built up, and we have also raised the replica outside the museum of ethnography.

I find it interesting that she says that the Swedish government “decided” that the totem pole should be returned, as if the Haisla had never made a request. It paints a much rosier picture of the whole encounter than the film does, unsurprisingly.

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Dance for Mother Earth Powwow moves off-campus

This year, the annual Mother Earth Powwow, held by the Native American Students Association at the University of Michigan, was moved off-campus. The move was in response to conflicts over artifacts held in the University’s Museum of Anthropology.

The move follows more than a year of controversy about the University’s continued possession of more than 1,900 remains and artifacts housed in the Museum of Anthropology that the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe claims belong to the tribe. Last March, members of the tribe appeared before the University Board of Regents to request the artifacts be returned.

Since then, the University has refused to return the relics, claiming they are “culturally unidentifiable” and returning them would violate federal law. According to the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, museums must retain possession of Native American artifacts if they cannot be identified with a specific tribe.

In part because of the University’s handling of this issue and in part to reduce the University’s involvement with the powwow, the Native American Student Association decided last month to move the yearly powwow away from University property this year.

In an interview with the Daily last month, NASA Co-chair Conner Sandefur said the move took place because NASA had a desire to shift the powwow’s management away from the University’s Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs and back to the Native American community.

“We are taking back our central control of the powwow to honor our community,” he told the Daily in early March. “One of the great things that have happened this year is we have been able to connect with the greater community. Native American students get to meet elders who feel comfortable coming because it’s not within the confinements of the University setting.”

(via The Michigan Daily)

This article reminded me of another similar story I read recently. The Denver Museum of Nature and Science deicede to stop holding its annual Buffalo Feast, despite its popularity, because it felt that the message it conveyed was negative. The museum staff felt that the Native community might not feel welcome at the museum outside of the Buffalo Feast, so they decided to start focusing more on involving the Native community in all aspects of the museum.

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Update on the return of Maliseet Canoe

A brief article from the Toronto Star provides new developments concerning the repatriation of the Maliseet Canoe from Ireland.

FREDERICTON – One of the world’s oldest known birchbark canoes may soon be returning to the Maliseet Nation.

The university said it would meet the “competing claims for the canoe from museums interested in conservation and display, and from representatives of those whose ancestors built the canoe.”

The 180-year-old canoe, currently on loan at the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John, N.B., has been in Irish hands for almost its entire existence and is to be sent back to Ireland in June.

But a group from the St. Mary’s First Nation, near Fredericton, has been pressing Irish officials to hand over the artifact, currently the property of the National University of Ireland Galway.

“This is the oldest canoe of our people,” said G. Wayne Brooks, who is leading the quest for repatriation.

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