Somehow, valuable Blackfoot artifacts ended up in Devon, England. Now they’re going home

For Siksika Nation Chief Ouray Crowfoot, the way the beaded buckskin shirt and leggings his ancestor wore a century and a half ago ended up in a museum in Devon, England, is less important than to finally have the opportunity this week to bring them back to southern Alberta.

“Were they sold? Were they stolen? Were they given as gifts? It was probably all of those things. I don’t know how it happened here and I think it’s irrelevant “, Crowfoot told CBC News after an inspirational ceremony at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter.

“They must be back with the people who created these objects.”

The repatriation ceremony, which included traditional Blackfoot or Siksika songs of heroism and colorful traditional headdresses, was the culmination of years of effort to repatriate a collection of items that once belonged to the legendary Chief Crowfoot.

“It’s a very strong feeling that reminds me of life back then,” said Siksika councilor Jenny Goodin.

“I am very honored to be here and to remember Chief Crowfoot.”

Issapomahksika, or Chief Crowfoot, is depicted in this 1886 photo, taken by Oliver Buell. (OB Buell/Library and Archives Canada/C-001871)

Crowfoot, who died in 1890, is revered by his people as a mighty warrior, influential diplomat and statesman whose influence transcended southern Alberta and was felt across the continent.

One of its legacies is Treaty 7, signed between the Blackfoot and the Crown.

Ouray Crowfoot, 42, is his great-great-great-great-grandson and the current Chief Siksika who led the delegation to Exeter.

“These items were never meant to be in museums – they were meant to be with the living,” Crowfoot told members of the Blackfoot delegation who were joined by members of Exeter City Council.

“Until I see [the Crowfoot collection] with its rightful owners today.. you don’t really understand its significance,” said Jon-Paul Hedge, the manager of Exeter City Council, who manages the museum and has been involved in repatriation efforts for several years.

WATCH | British museum returns sacred regalia to Alberta First Nation:

British museum returns sacred regalia and artifacts to Alberta First Nation

After lobbying for their return, a First Nation in Alberta received sacred regalia and artifacts that belonged to Chief Crowfoot from a British museum where they had been on display for more than a century.

Exeter City Council voted more than two years ago to return Crowfoot’s collection of items, but the process has been delayed by COVID-19 and travel restrictions, Hedge said.

“It’s not about what happened in the past. It’s about the relationship between the City of Exeter and the Siksika Nation now – those are their objects and we’re happy to see them coming home. them.”

Strater Crowfoot, left, and current Chief Siksika Ouray Crowfoot examine some of the artifacts returned from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. (Chris Brown/CBC)

The most important piece of the Crowfoot collection is the beaded buckskin shirt, decorated with strands of human hair, along with matching leggings.

There is also a bow, arrow, quiver, pipe and other items.

They were all originally obtained from Crowfoot by Cecil Denny, a co-signer of Treaty 7. From there it appears he passed them on to a relative in England who exhibited them at Exeter.

Chief Crowfoot’s grave is at Blackfoot Crossing, near where he signed Treaty 7. (Dave Rae/CBC)

The museum officially bought the family’s heirlooms in 1904 for the sum of 10 pounds – an exorbitant amount at the time – and has kept them until the present day.

In the next few days, the Crowfoot items will be carefully packed and boarded on a specially chartered flight back to Calgary.

Councilor Jenny Goodin was part of the Blackfoot, or Siksika, delegation to Exeter and said she was ‘very honored to be here and to remember Chief Crowfoot’. (Chris Brown/CBC)

They are expected to arrive on May 25 and the Blackfoot are planning a welcoming ceremony as soon as the precious cargo clears customs and officially enters Alberta.

Beyond that, the plan is to display the artifacts at Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park outside of Calgary.

Herman Yellow Old Woman, a former Siksika cultural curator at the site, helped start the repatriation process nearly a decade ago and was visibly moved during Thursday’s ceremony.

“It gives me chills to think that Canadians will be able to be educated in the right way – with evidence – to see a real story of our people,” he said, suggesting that repatriation will contribute to national reconciliation by ongoing between Canadian Indigenous communities and the broader society.

Items held by the Exeter Museum included a beaded buckskin shirt worn by Chief Crowfoot and leggings. (Chris Brown/CBC)

“A lot of our kids and grandkids don’t know our story and we’re going to take that home and we can share,” Yellow Old Woman said.

As well as meeting Exeter museum staff, the Siksika delegation also traveled further afield to visit UK museums where other Blackfoot artifacts are also housed.

Our CBC team encountered them at a museum in Bristol, where Yellow Old Woman examined several deer or elk shirts dating back to the 19th century.

Members of the Blackfoot Delegate visit a museum in Bristol, England, and examine insignia from its collection. (Adrian DiVergilio/CBC)

“They were preserved [well]“, he said of the collection in Bristol.

“But back home we don’t have old collections like this in North America, they’re long gone. So it’s amazing how well-preserved a lot of them are, especially the shirts.”

Ouray Crowfoot, the current chief, said the next step would be to hold similar talks with the museum in Bristol, and another in Manchester, to discuss future repatriations.

“When I see these things, they very well could have belonged to someone’s great-grandfather or great-great-grandfather in this room – so it’s a real personal connection.”