Repatriating Indigenous Cultural Heritage: What’s Reconciliation Got to Do With It?

Walk for Reconciliation, September 22, 2013, Vancouver, BC, Canada

By Robin R. R. Gray

In Canada, the call for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples has received increasing public attention since 2007, when the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was reached. 

The Agreement legally mandated a 5-year Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and in 2008 forced the Government of Canada to publicly apologize to survivors of the Indian residential school system. 

In support of the TRC’s mandate, non-governmental organizations like Reconciliation Canada have been established to engage peoples throughout the country in cross-cultural dialogues. Even institutions of the state are attempting to respond to the reconciliation imperative. The City of Vancouver has proclaimed June 21, 2013-June 20, 2014 a Year of Reconciliation, and Simon Fraser University (SFU)—home of the IPinCH project—declared September 16-22, 2013 “Reconciliation Week at SFU.” These initiatives are meant to expose the grievous legacies of the Indian residential school system and to improve relationships with Indigenous peoples. Now that Canadian society seems more open to reconciling the legacies of the residential school system, it is time to extend the general understanding of ‘reconciliation’ to include the repatriation of Indigenous cultural heritage. But what does reconciliation have to do with repatriating Indigenous cultural heritage?

“Acknowledging the historical events that resulted in First Nations losing their cultural property and addressing these issues is an important part of repatriation and reconciliation” - UBC Museum of Anthropology, 2008, 3.

In Canada, the history of capturing Indigenous children and the history of capturing Indigenous cultural heritage are intimately connected. Between 1850 and 1950 in the Pacific Northwest, Indigenous peoples were under siege: assaults on our bodies, lands and waterways, governance, languages, spirituality, ceremonies and on our children and families. We now know with greater clarity that it was the legally-sanctioned goal of the church and state to capture Indigenous children and to systematically “kill the Indian in the child” through genocidal practices associated with Indian residential schools (1831-1996). But the residential school system was merely part of a larger set of relations that denied Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing in order to justify the exploitation of Indigenous property and systems of property ownership. At the same time as Indigenous children were being taken away to the 18 residential schools across British Columbia, the Potlatch Ban (1884-1951) outlawed Pacific Northwest Indigenous nations’ potlatch and feasting systems and resulted in the removal of any associated material and intangible cultural heritage. These laws were ultimately reinforced as permanent legislation in the Indian Act of 1876. The Indian Act is not an archaic law of the past; it still exists today. If you need proof, I can show you my status card.

At top: walk for Reconciliation, September 22, 2013, Vancouver, BC, Canada (courtesy R. Gray used with permission); above, author Robin Gray. 

Systems like residential schools, and laws like the Potlatch Ban that stem from the Indian Act, helped to create the conditions in which non-Indigenous peoples and institutions could remove Indigenous cultural heritage by any means necessary. Unethical collecting, confining and copyrighting Indigenous cultural heritage was at its height between 1850-1950 in the Pacific Northwest.

The legacies are evident; in museums and other institutions today, one can barely avoid encountering Indigenous cultural heritage that was taken without regard for Indigenous governance. For my people, the Tsimshian, this reality is unpalatable. Just think about how much Tsimshian, or “northwest coast,” cultural heritage you have personally encountered in various museums across North America. Capturing our children and capturing our cultural heritage were intimately connected, and it gave rise to nation-states, the museum enterprise, academic disciplines and educational institutions.

Exposing the set of relations that supported this process will no doubt be a disconcerting process for most Canadians. Confronting these relations and their legacies requires addressing deep-rooted racism, anchored by academic and popular theories that positioned Indigenous cultures, societies and peoples at the lowest rung of human evolution. The fact that these racist theories were widely embraced and promoted by the general public, government agents, media, scientists, capitalists, travellers, collectors, missionaries, and many others, is unsettling. Acknowledging the historical events that led to the loss of Indigenous cultural property is an important part of repatriation and reconciliation. But just as 19th-century beliefs about Indigenous peoples had to be actively endorsed, so too will it require present-day people to actively promote decolonization and reconciliation.

Word cloud, courtesy Robin R.R. Gray, used with permission.

Restorative justice was necessary to reconcile the legacies of the Indian residential school system—this is why the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was reached and why the TRC was mandated. And restorative justice is also necessary for ensuring the repatriation of Indigenous cultural heritage. Because of the exploitative actions of Canadians, Americans and Europeans towards Indigenous peoples, Indigenous cultural heritage taken from the Pacific Northwest between 1850-1950, is now scattered across the globe in public and private institutions – just like our children were taken and scattered across the landscape in residential schools. And just as the TRC exists to reconcile the history of capturing Indigenous children, contemporary repatriation ethics, policies and laws are intended to reconcile the history of capturing Indigenous cultural heritage.

The current gatekeepers of this cultural heritage, from museum professionals to academics, must take restorative justice very seriously and must not ignore their position to enact change, as agents of reconciliation:


“They inherited that responsibility from predecessors who designated themselves and their students as ‘‘Indian experts’’ who created the foundational knowledges and theories that shaped habits of excavation and display. If we are truly interested in repatriation as a form of restorative justice, if we want to actually return these ancestors and objects to their appropriate places of origin, then we need to reexamine the people, processes, social relations, and knowledges that shaped these collections.” (Bruchac 2010:150)

As representatives of their institutions that store and display Indigenous content, and as designated legal authorities of these collections, gatekeepers of Indigenous cultural heritage play a key role in either preventing or promoting restorative justice when they respond to repatriation claims of Indigenous communities. The fact that some repatriation has occurred at all is a step in the right direction. However, the repatriation process continues to disproportionately benefit the interests of museums, the academy and the general public, over the rights of Indigenous peoples. To prove this point, consider whether restorative justice is really at work when Indigenous peoples are often forced to:

  • actively initiate the processes of repatriation (research, consultation, outreach, legal claims, financing), even though institutions are bound by regional, domestic and international ethics, policies and laws to do so in the name of restorative justice;
  • make incredible compromises in negotiating with non-Indigenous gatekeepers for collectively owned Indigenous property, while gatekeepers show little to no regard for Indigenous systems of property ownership;
  • provide evidence of a validity of claim utilizing Western, instead of Indigenous, forms of documentation to prove things like “sacredness,” “provenance,” “cultural affinity,” “prior existence,” or “lineal descent,” meanwhile the institutions themselves have poor inventory practices and often rely on Indigenous knowledge to clarify the mess left behind by colonialism’s wrath;
  • ask non-Indigenous gatekeepers for permission to use our own cultural heritage even though we are the hereditary gatekeepers according to our systems of property ownership and governance; and
  • if repatriation does occur, abide by conditions defined by the very gatekeepers that shouldn’t have had the cultural heritage in the first place.

At the very least, these are patronizing scenarios. They point to the fact that the notion of reconciliation must be applied to the repatriation process, and this means ensuring that restorative justice prevails.

In order for restorative justice to become the standard, we must expect more from gatekeepers. It is not okay that many gatekeepers ignore the restorative justice premise underlying contemporary repatriation ethics, policies and laws simply because they are selfishly resistant to letting go of another people’s cultural heritage. It is not okay that there exists a “right price” for our cultural heritage—which is very similar to my grandmother having to buy my father and his siblings back from the residential schools, if that were even possible. While many people and institutions denounce, on principle, the unethical and illegal practices that led to the development of many museum collections, in practice their professional identities and economies continue to rely on holding captured Indigenous heritage out of its cultural context.  Contemporary gatekeepers have responsibilities as agents of reconciliation.

Until recently, Canadian society has ignored dealing with the legacies of the Indian residential school system. Because of the recent move towards reconciliation, peoples and institutions are more open to understanding our shared history, which in turn, is creating the necessary space for people to think differently, feel differently, and act differently. More and more, I encounter non-Indigenous peoples and institutions promoting progress towards reconciliation of the history of residential schools. These actions are changing the way Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples interact with one another for the better, and they are helping to equip generations of non-Indigenous Canadians to begin to respect Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing for what is, really, the first time in history.

Repatriating Indigenous cultural heritage is another way of respecting Indigenous peoples, one that facilitates learning about how to acknowledge Indigenous governance and systems of property ownership, how to engage in research with, by and for Indigenous peoples, and how to navigate the intersection between knowledge and power. Repatriation also fosters learning about Indigenous cultures, societies and peoples from Indigenous peoples, about the relationships of peoples to places and how cultural heritage governs that relationship, and finally, about the importance of restorative justice and reconciliation.

The only way to ensure that restorative justice becomes the norm in repatriation cases is if we acknowledge the historical events, and address the issues, that led to the removal of cultural property from Indigenous peoples in the first place. Then we must take action to reverse those effects. There is nothing at risk in repatriation but academic, intuitional and national egos. Just let it go. It’s time to improve relationships, speed up the repatriation process, repatriate not only publication rights, but also copyrights, and do our best to prevent repatriation from turning into messy custody battles. It is time that gatekeepers and the general public make every effort to ensure that restorative justice prevails in the contemporary era of reconciliation.

So, returning to the original question posed, what does reconciliation have to do with repatriating Indigenous cultural heritage? Everything.


References Cited

Baird, Jill R., with Anjuli Solanki and Mique’l Askren, eds. 2008. Returning the Past: Repatriation of First Nations Cultural Property: Four Case Studies of First Nations Repatriation. Vancouver: UBC Museum of Anthropology.

Bruchac, Margaret M. 2010. Lost and Found: NAGPRA, Scattered Relics, and Restorative Methodologies. Museum Anthropology 33(2):137-156.

Other Resources

Anderson, Jane. 2009. (Colonial) Archives and (Copyright) Law. Nomorepotlucks Art Journal (online).

Donna, McAlear. 2007. Tsimshian Treasures: Repatriation and Questions of Ownership. Ornamentum (online)

Gray, Lynda. 2011. First Nations 101. Vancouver, BC: Adaawx Publishing.

Indian Residential School Survivor Society 

King, Thomas. 2012. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. Toronto, ON: Double Day Canada.

Nicholas, George. 2011. Presentation to the TRC National Research Centre Forum.

Project for the Protection and Repatriation of First Nation Cultural Heritage in Canada 

Reagan, Paulette. 2011. Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling and Reconciliation in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Reconciliation Canada

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples