Recently a news item was published by CBC, and sources across Canada of a “Canadian Metis Chief’s Medicine Bag, feather & stick, found on grave Batoche 1885” being offered for sale on eBay, which was met with serious backlash from the Metis community. 1 At the end of the 1960 and in the beginning of the 1970s, thefts were increasing both in museums and at archaeological sites, particularly in the countries of the South. In the North, private collectors and, sometimes, official institutions, were increasingly offered objects that had been fraudulently imported or were of unidentified origin.
It is in this context, and to address such situations, the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property was created in 1970 by Unesco. As well, stated in the preamble to the Hague Convention, which Canada is party to the treaty ‘… damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind, since each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world’. 2 It is unknown as to how the “culturally sensitive” artifact found on grave in Batoche came into a private collector’s possession, and speculations as to its origins being First Nation other than Metis. The term culturally sensitive broadens concepts embodied in “sacred” and “holy” to include any objects demanding special respect because of their significance within their cultural context. The object’s associations with a particular individual or group invoke protocols recognized by the whole community, which is, again, a demonstration of respect. A statement made in the news article cites that the artifact is of First Nation origins, in study of Metis history, the community embraced both worlds of our ancestors, including Medicine use. Without proper study these statements are without any basis as to origin and ownership.
At the beginning of this year Louis Riel’s artifacts who were in the possession of the Federal government in the RCMP Heritage Centre in Regina, were returned, over 100 years upon their collection. As with the Bell of Batoche, the long history of the artifact begins in 1885, when it was taken to Ontario as a victory symbol by Canadian soldiers after they defeated Louis Riel’s second rebellion, also known as the North-West Rebellion. The Bell is a symbol of why we engaged in that struggle, and is very important for the Métis, we were fighting to protect our way of life, our culture, our land and resources. Our communities’ artifacts and history needs to be protected by Governments when cultural items fall into private collections in foreign countries. We will be following this story this week as the bids close soon, and hopefully it is returned to the Métis or First Nation community where it was obtained from, out of respect for our communities.
(2) The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural property en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hague_Convention_for_the_Protection_of_Cultural_Property_in_the_Event_of_Armed_Conflict
(3) Louis Riel artifacts RCMP Press Release: www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/en/news/2017/rcmp-signs-agreement-metis-people-return-historical-artifacts
Poundmakers Pipe in London Museum: www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/poundmaker-pipe-saskatchewan-british-museum-london-1.4080776