StarPhoenix – Doug Cuthand

A couple of weeks ago, a Saskatoon lawyer and Kawacatoose band member was on holidays in London when he came across a display on Chief Poundmaker in the British Museum. Along with a picture and some prose was Poundmaker’s pipe.

The display featured a picture of Poundmaker and stated that he led the Plains Cree at the time of the Riel rebellion. This statement is false and out of date. The unrest at Fort Battleford was a direct result of the government’s refusal to uphold the treaties. The statement continues to foster the old colonial viewpoint that there was an organized and unified resistance in 1885.

As for the Poundmaker pipe on display, some feel it was a pipe that he smoked casually and that it was not used for ceremonial purposes. If it was used for ceremony, then it should not be on display.

The British were famous for looting the empire and hauling stuff back home. Everything from stolen artifacts to priceless antiquities such as the Elgin marbles is housed in the British Museum.

In addition to the plunder done by the British, First Nations artifacts are on display throughout Europe and the United States. Many of these artifacts are treated as trophies of war and conquest, further proof that the theory was that the British conquered inferior people and spread civilization throughout the world.

Some of the artifacts have spiritual significance and should be treated as such. The Iron Creek Meteorite came from east central Alberta, close to the present day town of Hardisty. This is one of Canada’s largest meteorites and it landed in pre-Columbian times — nobody knows how long ago.

It was seized by missionaries and shipped to Ontario in an effort to separate the Plains people from their religion. It was revered by the Plains tribes, and offerings were left with it. It was spiritually fed, but today it sits in the Royal Alberta Museum, far from the land and people who kept its strength.

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First Nations history and spirituality are often ignored when museums are displaying sacred items. To the museum curators, these are obsolete and superstitious items that belong somewhere in the distant past. They come from the heart of darkness of some pre-colonial era.

A few years ago the late filmmaker Gil Cardinal did a documentary about a totem pole that was taken from the Haisla people in British Columbia. The G’psgolox pole was taken in 1921 and disappeared. It took years for the Haisla people to track down the pole and they eventually found it in a museum at Stockholm, Sweden.

Some community members travelled to Sweden and saw the pole. It contained the images of all the clans among the Haisla people and was an important part of their history and spirituality. They made a promise to the pole that they would bring it home to its people.

Eventually, after raising the money, they had it transferred back to their home community. There was one glitch, however. The museum wanted them to house the pole in a climate-controlled building. This was expensive, but eventually they were able to build the required structure.

Their original plan had been to return the pole to their village and lay it down in the graveyard and let it return to the earth. This flabbergasted the museum staff, who were in the business of preserving things. On the other hand, the Haisla people saw that it should complete its journey back to the land that gave it life in the first place.

I recall once being with my dad as we drove past my grandfather’s house on the reserve. It was an old log house that had been abandoned long ago. Dad said that it should be torn down. Later that year, my cousin tore it down and removed it.

The reasoning behind this was that it was our grandparents’ home and since their spirits had departed and it should be removed so they wouldn’t feel the need to return.

The issues of preservation are very different in Indian Country. To us, life is a circle and everything eventually returns to the earth. It’s the circle of life and it’s an important part of our spirituality.

— Doug Cuthand is a columnist for The Saskatoon StarPhoenix