Blackfoot visitors Allan and Charlene Pard and RAMM's curator Tony Eccles examine a bladder bag at the Cambridge Museum. This type of bag, made from deer skin, was used to hold ceremonial items.

Guests Charlene Wolfe and Allan Pard of the Blackfoot nations with Tony Eccles, RAMM’s Curator of Ethnography, examining objects from the Cambridge collection.

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery (RAMM), Exeter, is involved in a multi-partner project, funded by The Leverhulme Trust’s International Network Grant.

The project is led by Dr. Alison Brown, University of Aberdeen, with Dr. Anita Herle, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (CUMAA), University of Cambridge as the other UK museum partner.

The project’s objective is to bring together Blackfoot nations representatives of Canada and the USA with museum curators in the UK who care for Blackfoot items; specifically the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) and RAMM.

This called for the sharing of information concerning acquisition history, the cultural artefacts themselves and advice pertaining to their care. RAMM holds material from a time when Canada was becoming a nation.  This was a period of treaty signing and Exeter’s material is associated with the signing of Treaty 7 in 1877 between the Crown, the Blackfoot nations, Sarcee and Atsinas nations[1].

Crown and First Nations Treaties in Canada 1763-2005  The two key donors to Exeter were Cecil Denny, then a member of the North West Mounted Police and later an Indian agent and Edgar Dewdney, a politician and Lieutenant Governor of the North West Territories.  These two men participated in the upheaval that transformed the lives of the First Nations peoples in the frontier world of North America.

In the final part of this two-year project, curators from the Cambridge and Exeter museums disseminated their project findings through papers and lectures from March 2015. RAMM has also been involved in discussions with Blackfoot (Siksika) elders concerning the possible return of Crowfoot’s regalia to Bow Crossing, Alberta.  This important regalia was obtained by Denny from Crowfoot himself who continues to have great meaning for the Blackfoot (Siksika) today.

A trip to Cambridge Museum by Tony Eccles, RAMM’s Curator of Ethnography, in March 2015 helped  provide a significant step forward in the discussions on repatriation.  Piikani ceremonial leader Allan Pard and Charlene Wolfe are elders for some of the Blackfoot ceremonial societies.  They were visiting the Cambridge museum to examine and offer an interpretation for a collection they hadn’t seen before.  Allan Pard is currently serving as Senior Advisor to the Department of Aboriginal Relations for the Government of Alberta and it was in this capacity that RAMM’s curator was able to learn more about Blackfoot culture and the official process for return.

It is now known that the repatriation should involve most of the items donated by Denny because they are directly associated with Chief Crowfoot.  The regalia is a collection of items that serve as emblems of Crowfoot’s earned authority and status as leader; this includes a ceremonial buckskin shirt, a pair of leggings, a ceremonial knife, a quirt and two pouches.

Strictly speaking Crowfoot was not the ruler of the Blackfoot nations but he was acknowledged and respected as one who could speak for all (this was misinterpreted by the Crown who believed Crowfoot to be the leader of all Blackfoot nations, which he clearly wasn’t).  In an attempt to secure a peaceful future for the Blackfoot, Crowfoot advised the other Blackfoot leaders to sign Treaty 7 with the Crown.  However, this act was considered by many Blackfoot as the wrong decision, but what other choice did the Blackfoot have?  The alternative was to have gone to war which would have culminated in a greater tragedy than that already experienced by the Blackfoot.

When Treaty 7 was signed the Blackfoot became subjects of the Crown and their way of life was forever transformed.  Like many other cultures exposed to colonialism, this transformation was not a positive one, the trauma of which is still felt.  An act of repatriation would certainly begin a process of healing.  Such an act is also needed for educational purposes and in Canada physical access to the collection can be beneficial to many new audiences.

A divination pouch associated with Crowfoot (Accession number 1000/1904/6)  A discussion with Allan Pard led to the understanding that the regalia therefore includes not just the decorated shirt and leggings but also a ceremonial knife, two pouches, the bow-case and quiver, bow and arrows, two quirts and the bear claw necklace.  The given interpretation to one of the pouches revealed it to be a divination kit that was either given to Crowfoot or it was purchased by him.  This interpretation was never present in the original collection inventory as the item was simply listed as a ‘pouch’.

Early museum inventories often lacked an understanding into another culture’s things.  This is just one small example of how direct engagement with First Nation communities can be extremely positive with benefits for all concerned.  A list of which items are to be considered for return and which items RAMM will be permitted to continue caring for is currently under negotiation.  What is important is that the Blackfoot (Siksika) and Exeter relationship remains active for the long term.

Notes

[1] This was first noted in the Museum Sub-Committee Minutes 1870-9, 3 June 1878 

  “…curator reported that the Miss Denny wished to place on loan in the museum a very handsome dress purchased by her brother from the Principle Chief of the Blackfeet Indians at Bow River, North America…”

[2] Relationships that develop to enable an act of repatriation are rarely maintained when the act is completed.  To ensure that the relationship with the Blackfoot nation continues, Exeter would like to continue caring for some items from this collection  so that this colonial tale can be told through two equal voices.