From the time of first contact between explorers, settlers and Indigenous peoples Indigenous cultural property has been collected for its value as art, historical artifact and curiosity. Some artifacts were recovered through archaeological excavation, and others in the course of developing land for modern use. Some pieces were received in trade while others were stolen. From all of these sources, Indigenous cultural property has wound its way as family heirloom, as museum display or as research property to become part of private and institutional collections in Canada and across the globe.
In too many cases, Indigenous cultural property is not readily accessible by the Indigenous peoples to which it once belonged and for whom it holds not just historical but spiritual, political, cultural and educational value. While the laws around discovery and archaeological practices have been strengthened to ensure Indigenous peoples are consulted on new recoveries, many thousands of artifacts remain in the custody of non-Indigenous people and institutions.
Some institutions have a process to permit limited access to Indigenous cultural property; some even have processes for returning artifacts to Indigenous peoples. Yet the standards of evidence and assurances of storage and curation required by such policies are often based on Western norms and institutional practices which do not respect traditional Indigenous ways of knowing or expectations of use. Where institutions may consider artifacts to require careful storage, minimal handling and limited access, Indigenous peoples’ perspectives are shaped by concepts such as collective ownership, regular use for ceremony, play and teaching, and oral tradition rather than documentary evidence.
The Act would lead to the creation of a national strategy pointing the way for both institutions, private collectors and Indigenous peoples to repatriate Indigenous cultural property where desired by Indigenous peoples. It would become part of the constellation of efforts at the federal level to respond to the TRC Calls to Action (esp. No. 67) and implement UNDRIP (esp. Articles 11 and 12).
© 2018 Bill Casey. All rights reserved.