Summer decision on whether Exeter museum will return sacred indigenous relics to Canada amid repatriation row

Council bosses in Exeter will decide in the summer whether to return sacred indigenous artefacts to Canada amid a trans-Atlantic row over the items. 

Descendants of a 19th century tribal chief are demanding the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) repatriates the regalia it bought for £10 in 1904.

The haul includes a buckskin shirt and leggings, a dee-hide necklace strung with grizzly bear claws, and a hardwood bow and arrow.

They belonged to Chief Crowfoot of the Blackfoot Nation, also known as the Siksika.

A campaign has been launched to see the belongings returned so they can be housed in a cultural and educational centre in Canada close to where the chief was buried.

However, the RAMM, which is owned by Exeter City Council, says it is not clear the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park (BCHP) has the facilities to look after them properly.

Speaking at February’s city council executive meeting, Councillor Rachel Sutton, portfolio holder for culture, said discussions over the repatriation are ongoing and that a final decision is likely to be made in July.

She added: “We had a formal request to repatriate the items in 2015 and, in principle, there is no difficulty with this kind of thing.

“Discussions are ongoing about this and we hope to have a successful conclusion to this process.

“A paper will come to the executive in June and then council in July for a final decision.

“I want to reassure people that the discussions are open and ongoing and we are awaiting for a response from some of our correspondence with various parties in Canada.”

City council leader Phil Bialyk added: “We are being asked to do the right thing and we are going to be doing the right thing.”

The RAMM bought the items from the family of Cecil Denny, an English-born member of the Canadian mounted police, who was one of the signatories of a treaty Crowfoot signed with the Crown in 1877.

According the RAMM website: “A hand-written note in the museum states that, according to Denny’s sister, items were purchased by Denny at the time of signing Treaty 7 at Bow River, Alberta, in 1877.

“Denny was one of the signatories and acquired the regalia as a way of marking or honouring the words of the treaty.”

Explaining why the items have not been returned, a RAMM spokesman said it was because the BCHP is not accredited with the Canadian Museums Association.

It added: “Under RAMM’s current policy, the long-term preservation of returned material remains a consideration.

“For this reason, details of environmental conditions and a current business plan are needed to inform ECC’s councillors, who make the final decision, that items will be transferred to organisations who have the necessary structure and resources to ensure the long-term care of repatriated material.

“We also request details of governance to minimise the risk of competing or conflicting claims for the same material.

“As yet, not all of this information has been sent by BCHP, and therefore negotiations have stalled.

“In a spirit of co-operation to progress the repatriation request, RAMM has written directly to the Siksika Tribal Council, elected representatives of the Siksika nation, proposing that the request is considered by ECC Executive Committee in June 2020 and council in mid-July.

“A letter has asked for information on the governance relationship between BCHP and the tribal council and a clarification on whether it is proposed the future ownership of the regalia would lie with BCHP or the Siksika Tribal Council.”

Stephen Yellow Old Woman, general manager of Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park, said: “We are currently in our second decade of repatriation efforts, with no end in sight.

“Much of this whole experience has been shocking to us.

“It’s brick wall after brick wall after brick wall. And the thing is, we climb it and get to the other side, and they put up another brick wall of the same requirements that we just fulfilled.

“It is like Siksika and Crowfoot are currently in a long, dark tunnel with no end in sight.”

The RAMM says that items – including human remains and sacred artefacts – have been returned to indigenous communities including Tasmanian Aborigines, Maori and the Ngarrindjeri of southern Australia.

They stressed that each claim is dealt with on a case-by-case basis and the museum will also this year review its methods of dealing with such applications.

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