Returning Indigenous artifacts from RAM important but complicated, experts say

· The Pulse

Candace Wasacase says when she visits the Manitou Stone, she can feel its energy.

"If you've ever been in the presence of it, you cannot be angry in the presence of the stone," she said.

Thousands of years ago, the 145-kilogram iron meteorite fell from the universe and landed on a hill somewhere near Hardisty, Alta., Wasacase said. "It was the original site to gather, to pray. It was always seen as a place of peace, healing, and understanding amongst the tribes of the time, prior to colonization," she said. "This was the heart and the spirit, sort of the centre of Indigenous spirituality."

A Methodist missionary stole the stone from its original location more than 150 years ago. The Royal Alberta Museum in downtown Edmonton now houses the stone, also called Manitou Asinîy (Creator's Stone), awâsis kôhtakocihk kîsikohk (the child who fell from the sky), the Iron Stone, the Iron Creek Meteorite, and the Shining Rock. The museum keeps the stone in an area near the admission desk, so people can visit it without paying. The stone rests on soil from near where it hit the earth. Museum staff smudge the stone twice each week.

But while the museum is the repository for artifacts found in the province and houses 12 million pieces of history from more than 40,000 archaeological sites, it won't be the Manitou Stone's home for long. Two years ago, the Alberta government agreed to return the stone to the land. Wasacase is CEO of the Manitou Asiniy-Iniskim-Tsa Xani Centre, the organization charged with building a new home for the stone. She told Taproot the centre is taking shape, with many moving parts involved. The centre needs to raise money, secure land, and create a marketing team. A project of this importance is going to take time and care, Wasacase said.

"A lot of this is about building on hope, building on stories that we need to take back for ourselves," she said. "It's about building community trust and community relations because I think there's sort of a sense of loss that hasn't been properly expressed."

Wasacase, who's a member of Kahkewistahaw First Nation in southern Saskatchewan, said the theft of the Manitou Stone had long-lasting consequences for Indigenous people on the Prairies. "At the time, it was prophesized if the stone was ever taken that great harm would come to Indigenous people — that the bison would leave us, there would be famine, disease, war between the tribes, and all those things happened," she said. "The path to restoring that is to reclaim culture, identity, language, pride, and all of those things are represented in the body of this stone."

Repatriation of Indigenous artifacts is becoming more common in Canada. A treaty medallion, Chief Poundmaker's staff, and a baby carrier are among the items returned to Indigenous communities across Canada in recent years.

Wasacase said repatriation of the stone is vitally important for Alberta and Indigenous nations. "I really think of the work of the Manitou Stone as marrying the idea of reconciliation and reclamation and repatriation," she said.

But right now, repatriating artifacts is not as simple as asking for an item to be returned and museums or other organizations following through. Archaeologists say that's because of legislative requirements, security restraints, and the sheer number of artifacts.

The Royal Alberta Museum in downtown Edmonton.

The Royal Alberta Museum is the official repository for archaeological artifacts in the province. It's the current home for the Manitou Stone, which a missionary stole from its original site roughly 150 years ago. (Stephanie Swensrude)

Each archaeological artifact contains a piece of an Indigenous community's history, but there are thousands of boxes of artifacts stored at the Royal Alberta Museum and at an off-site hangar. Sometimes it isn't practical to return them to communities that lack resources and storage space.

"Every individual little fleck of animal bone, for example, counts as one artifact. Every flake that comes off of manufacturing a stone tool… every time you chip a little piece off, that counts as one artifact, and in the manufacturing of one of these, you can have upwards of 100, 200, 1,000 flakes," said Kyle Forsythe, curator of archaeology at the Royal Alberta Museum.

Kisha Supernant, director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology at the University of Alberta, said not every piece of stone has ceremonial importance. "But the challenge that I see is communities are not currently in a position to decide what are the most important items, and how they are necessarily returned to all First Nations and Métis communities which might want them back," Supernant said.

The First Nations Sacred Ceremonial Objects Repatriation Act allows for certain important cultural items to be returned to Indigenous communities. The act applies to items that are "vital to the practice of the First Nation's sacred ceremonial traditions," not broadly to larger archaeological collections. Through the act, First Nations must apply for repatriation, meaning individuals can't apply to have an ancestor's belongings returned. To date, the act has only been used to return items to Blackfoot communities (other First Nations and Métis communities do not have regulations developed within the act). The act applies to items "vital to the practice of the First Nation's sacred ceremonial traditions," not broadly to larger archaeological collections.

Blood Tribe, Piikani Nation, and Siksika Nation have had items returned through the act. The museum also returned objects to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation using the Historical Resources Act. Forsythe said the museum's Indigenous engagement team is working on an internal policy to guide how it returns non-sacred and non-ceremonial objects to Indigenous communities, particularly objects with demonstrated cultural connection to a living person or group.

The museum loans out artifacts on a case-by-case basis. Forsythe said some archaeological sites — for example, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump — have turned up thousands of archaeological artifacts, and if a community requests items on a loan, the museum tells the community what it has.

"We will tell whoever the requester is exactly what we have, and if someone wants all of it and has the capacity to store it under a loan, that's great. In other cases — most cases, in my experience — people will say, 'No, we just want these specific artifacts to come on loan,'" Forsythe said.

The museum said it works with cultural knowledge holders to ensure the artifacts that stay at the museum are cared for in a culturally sensitive and respectful way.

Another challenge in repatriating Indigenous artifacts is not just the storage space, but the conditions. The artifacts are often considered valuable, meaning security is a concern. Supernant said if the Manitou Stone was returned to the same place it was before, for example, it would likely be stolen.

"The other conversation that you sometimes hear is that if items are returned, then they're not going to be conserved at the same standards as they are in the Royal Alberta Museum," Supernant added. "Who decided, one, that they needed to be conserved, and two, what are the right ways to conserve them? It's true that many First Nations don't have infrastructure to have a museum with all the same climate control and everything like that, but the assumption that everything has to be cared for in that way is not an Indigenous assumption. It's a Western assumption."

Wasacase said the Royal Alberta Museum has preserved the Manitou Stone and has been an "amazing steward." The Manitou Centre has to raise part of the money needed to build a proper facility to house the stone. But Wasacase said she isn't angry that Indigenous people have to fundraise to receive an object that was stolen from them.

"There's an upside to fundraising through community engagement that opens up," she said. "Let's just say 100% of the money was going to come from the churches and the federal government and the provincial government — then we would have missed out on an opportunity to talk to Canadians about why they need to get involved."

Wasacase envisions the centre as including a sort of pilgrimage, a walk to the stone, which will be reconnected to the earth, not up on a pedestal. "We also want to build an interpretive centre that would foster things like Indigenous languages and programming. STEM is a big thing for us, looking to the stars, learning from the stars, and Indigenous science," she added.

But before that vision is realized, Wasacase said she's spending the next few months engaging with Indigenous communities and securing financial support.

"This is not something that's going to happen overnight, but the building blocks of today — raising the money and building the awareness — are regaining the stories back into (the) community and building trust for a shared project."

Correction: This story has been changed to correct earlier information about an internal policy and who legislation applies to.