Sacred headdress set to be returned to original owners in Canada after 90 years in Exeter museum

A sacred headdress displayed in an Exeter museum for more than 90 years is expected to be returned to its original owners in Canada.

The Blackfoot Nation of Alberta would like the Motokiks ceremonial headdress – known as a Bird Bundle – back from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum where it has been since 1920, writes Local Democracy Reporter Guy Henderson.

“It has been away for far too long,” wrote one Canadian community leader.

The headdress is traditionally worn by holy women of the Holy Buffalo Woman Society.

It was left to the museum by Edgar Dewdney, lieutenant governor of the Northwest Territories and a Canadian MP.

Born into poverty in Bideford in 1835, he left the UK to find his fortune and worked as a surveyor for the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

In 1868 he entered the colonial government and in 1892 became Indian Commissioner.

According to a report to Exeter City Council’s executive meeting next week, very little is known about how he acquired the headdress.

However, the report says it ‘would not have been given freely’, meaning it was probably seized as part of an ‘assimilation’ process in which European and American culture was forced on indigenous people.

Dewdney’s role was to enforce that policy, which would have involved confiscating traditional items.

The headdress is made from buffalo horns, eagle feathers, indigo bunting bird, red-tailed hawk, red trade cloth, porcupine quills and brass bells.

It was bequeathed to the museum as part of a larger group of Native American artefacts by Dewdney’s second wife, Blanche Elizabeth, who lived in Torquay.

In 2013, a Blackfoot delegation including Siksika people from Alberta identified the headdress as a sacred ceremonial item which should not have been on public display, and since then it has been stored.

Last year Siksika Elders visited Exeter to discuss the repatriation of other regalia which had been in the museum for even longer, and asked for the headdress back.

At the time, Siksika Chief Ouray Crowfoot explained that it would be used by the Holy Buffalo Women Society as originally intended, rather than being treated as an artefact.

The report adds: “Recent discussions on the decolonisation of Britain’s museums have placed greater emphasis on the moral obligation of museums to return material to community use that may override former concerns on the long-term preservation of sacred artefacts in museum conditions.”

Councillors will be warned by culture, leisure and tourism director Jon-Paul Hedge that they may face criticism for returning the headdress and could set a precedent for other museums.

But Mr Hedge also says refusing the repatriation request could cause ‘significant hurt’ to the Siksika Nation and lead to negative media coverage.

“There is a danger of reputational damage to RAMM and Exeter City Council, which has been regarded as a leader in the field of carefully considered repatriation,” he says.

And in a letter to the museum Chief Roy Fox of the Blood Tribe/Kainai in Alberta writes: “The bundle has been away for far too long. The entire Blackfoot Confederacy community will be pleased to see it return home.”

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