Modern Anthropology and the Repatriation of Material Culture

Portrait of Chief Crowfoot (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Portrait of Chief Crowfoot (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Anthropology is often seen by the general population as a discipline which deals solely with broad, theoretical concepts. Being a discipline based in theory, it is not seen to have much practical use outside of academia. Until I began studying anthropology at the University of Exeter, I was among those who felt that way. I thought anthropology was interesting, but not very applicable. However, with a growing globalised world, anthropology is more relevant to practical life than ever before. Anthropology is necessary in international and European policy-making organisations, advocacy and aid groups, tourism, heritage sites, diplomacy, journalism, and day-to-day life. There are many examples of the uses of anthropology in Exeter, which I have come to learn about through my studies. One example is the recent debate over the repatriation of a collection of artefacts from the RAMM (Royal Albert Memorial Museum) and how this involves changing attitudes toward ownership and the importance of material culture and heritage.

Repatriation of museum-based artefacts is an issue that many museums across the UK are currently facing. The RAMM in Exeter has held ethnographic collections from across the world for over a hundred years. One particular exhibit houses artefacts from various First Nations peoples of Canada, some of which were acquired during the colonization of Canada at a time of enforced power hierarchies between indigenous peoples and colonists. Museum curators must now re-examine the roots of these artefact acquisitions and the underlying ethical problems. They must also consider the educational value of these items, and where that value is best put to use. Of particular interest is Crowfoot’s regalia in the RAMM’s ethnographic exhibit.

Crowfoot’s regalia is a collection of items which once belonged to Issapoomahsika (or Crowfoot, ‘Leader of the Blackfoot’ of Canada). 110 years after it was sold to the museum, it received a visit from home. In November 2013, the RAMM welcomed representatives of the Siksika, Piikani, and Kainai nations of Canada and the Blackfeet nation of the United States. This visit was conducted in an effort to attain better understanding of the artefacts through the interpretations of the Blackfoot people, but moreover it has opened up further discussion of repatriation. The collection hadn’t been seen by the Blackfoot people for 130 years. It contains a decorated deerskin shirt, leggings, a ceremonial knife, two pouches, a bow-case and quiver, bows and arrows, two quirts and a bear-claw necklace. They served as emblems of Crowfoot’s earned authority and status as a leader. It was sold to the museum for £10 in 1904 by Cecil Denny, then a member of the North West Mounted Police. It is unclear how Denny came to acquire Crowfoot’s possessions, but he did acquire them sometime before the signing of the 1877 Treaty and it was widely known that he and Crowfoot were friends. (Eccles 2015)

Physical possession of Crowfoot’s regalia is extremely important to the Blackfoot people, because they believed him to have been a significant leader in their history of whom many can learn from. Crowfoot was not the leader of all Blackfoot nations as some thought, but was acknowledged as one who could speak for all. He urged the Blackfoot to sign Treaty 7 in 1877 between the Crown, Blackfoot nations, Sarcee and Atsinas nations in the desire for peace and the only alternative to war. The treaty put the First Nations under the rule of the Crown, by which England could then implement various institutions into First Nation societies. Despite prejudice and unethical treatment of the First Nation peoples under the law, the treaty meant they were now required to obey the Crown. By signing this treaty, life for the Blackfoot, like many aboriginal nations, was characterised by cultural upheaval. Despite this, Crowfoot is seen by the Blackfoot people as a strong leader who always vied for peace. (Eccles 2015)

The RAMM has been in conversation with the Siksika Blackfoot elders to return the regalia to Bow Crossing, Alberta, Canada (Eccles 2015). Herman Yellow Old Woman, a cultural curator at the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park museum east of Calgary on Siksika Nation, stated that repatriating the regalia would be ‘bringing [Crowfoot’s] spirit home’ (Dempster 2014). He went further to say, ‘To bring back these artefacts to our community will give us a sense of pride… Our children are starting to lose their identity and I think for these kind of artefacts to come back will give them a boost and a positive energy to connect back to who they are as Blackfoot people’ (Dempster 2014). Repatriation of the regalia would evidently contribute to the remembrance of cultural and historical identities of Blackfoot nations and be an educational asset to Canadians visiting the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park museum. The museum itself also supports the repatriation.

Tony Eccles, curator of the RAMM, was very supportive of the repatriation, stating, ‘Isn’t it about time Crowfoot came home?’ (Dempster 2014). Herman Yellow Old Woman planned to have the regalia returned to the Blackfoot Crossing museum by spring of 2015 (Dempster 2014). Unfortunately, though the regalia is no longer on display, this has yet to occur. Eccles stated that there is still a long way to go before the return of the regalia is agreed upon between involved parties, but was happy to say the RAMM and Exeter City Council are heavily involved in these negotiations. The content of this continuing discourse is not yet open to the public, but readers are urged to keep an eye out for the next issue of the Journal of Museum Ethnography, which will include an article written by Tony Eccles, Alison Brown, and Anita Herle about their involvement with the Blackfoot.

Even small cities like Exeter are alive with international culture and discourse. As an anthropology student, I find places like the RAMM fascinating, not only for its historical ethnographic information but for its involvement with current cultures today. The repatriation of Crowfoot’s regalia is but one example of how anthropology can be used practically to aid in the sustainability of heritage in a modern world. This goes to show that anthropology is so much more than an academic discipline. Studying anthropology at Exeter has given me so much more insight into its applications in ways I never would have considered: anthropological theory does not need to be restricted to academic writing but has many uses for a range of topical cultural and political issues.

References

Eccles, T. 2015: RAMM Meets Blackfoot Representatives, RAMM: World Cultures. [online] Accessed at http://rammworldcultures.org.uk/ramm-meets-blackfoot-representatives/ on 18/02/2016.

Dempster, A. 2014: Chief Crowfoot’s Regalia to Return Home to Alberta, CBC News. [online] Accessed at http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/chief-crowfoot-s-regalia-to-return-home-to-alberta-1.2654211 on 18/02/2016.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. Crowfoot: Blackfoot Chief, Encyclopaedia Britannica. [image] Accessed at http://www.britannica.com/biography/Crowfoot on 19/02/2016.

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