Canadian researcher disputes Vatican claim that his Indigenous artifacts were gifts

A Canadian art expert disputes the Vatican’s official account of how it acquired tens of thousands of Indigenous artifacts from countries around the world, including Canada.

In the early 1920s, Pope Pius XI appealed to Catholic missions around the world to donate artifacts, including indigenous cultural property, to a 1925 Vatican Mission Exhibition.

“Basically, they were looking for anything and everything related to missionary life and Indigenous life during this time,” said Gloria Bell, assistant professor of art history at McGill University and Terra Fellow. Foundation at the American Academy in Rome. His research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Fonds de recherche du Québec.

Catholic missions sent about 100,000 artifacts to the Vatican.

Most of these artifacts have become part of the Vatican’s permanent collection. This collection includes a human face mask from Haida Gwaii, a rare kayak from Inuvialuit in the western Arctic, a pair of beaded skin moccasins, carved birch bark carvings, and a model sled walrus ivory and sealskin dogs.

Gloria Bell, an assistant professor of art history at McGill University, has been researching the Vatican’s collection of Indigenous cultural objects and artwork for nearly a decade. (Gloria Bell/Supplied)

The Vatican says the artifacts were sent as a gift to the pope. bells research suggests the claim glosses over a disputed story indigenous peoples working under duress to create these objects – as well as evidence that some of these cultural assets may have been stolen from the communities.

“My research opens up that question,” said Bell, who has mixed-race ancestry on her mother’s side.

“Stolen Badges”

Bell said she studied catalog records that describe cultural objects taken during the potlatch ban from 1885 to 1951, when it was a criminal offense to participate in the traditional gift-giving celebrations used by First Nations. on the west coast to mark community milestones.

“These were seized by missionaries during the potlatch ban, so they are definitely stolen trappings and cultural objects,” Bell said.

She says she found copies of missionary bulletins, such as the Indian Sentinelstating that boarding school students in the United States made souvenirs for the 1925 Vatican Exposition.

Duane Smith, president and CEO of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, wants the Roman Catholic Church and the federal government to pay for the repatriation of a rare kayak now in possession of the Vatican. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

“It wouldn’t have been unusual for this to have happened and there is evidence that they sent artifacts,” Bell said.

“This is an ongoing research question. I think it is possible that [materials from residential schools] also came from Canada.”

Bell said she read newspaper clippings and a papal appeal to missionaries discussing sending The natives themselves participated in the exhibition, but found nothing to confirm that it really happened.

“There’s this colonial legacy of exhibiting humans and the colonial legacy of living zoos that continued into the early 20th century,” she said.

Calls for repatriation

Few people have seen the Vatican’s collection of Indigenous Canadian artifacts. Most are in storage.

But the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has arranged for a group of First Nations, Métis and Inuit delegates – who are meeting the pope this week at the Vatican – to view some of the artifacts on Tuesday during private tours of the Vatican Museums.

Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council, said she was not aware of any mixed-race property in the Vatican, but was eager to find out what was in the Anima Mundi exhibition at the Ethnological Museum of the Vaticanwhich contains artifacts from the 1925 exposition.

“I will surely seek out our artifacts and anything that belongs in the house with us and in our communities,” Caron said.

The Vatican has tens of thousands of Indigenous artifacts from countries around the world, including Canada. (Gloria Bell/Supplied)

CBC News was invited by the Vatican Museum to view some of the Indigenous artifacts last December when First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegates were originally scheduled to meet with Pope Francis.

But since the visit was postponed due to a global outbreak of Omicron cases, the museum has not responded to repeated requests for access and interviews from CBC.

Duane Smith, president and CEO of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, attempts to repatriate the kayak from the Vatican. It is said to be one of five of its kind in the world.

“I hope and expect that as part of reconciliation, not only the church but also the federal government will work with us proactively,” he said.

Smith said he wanted the church and Ottawa to pay to bring the kayak home. He said the community plans to display it and use it in workshops to teach young people how to build one.

“We hope that once our Inuit representation is there, they can move things along so that they can come back with good news,” he said.

Colonial stories in the Vatican

Bell said she hopes the church will consult with indigenous communities on the ethics of displaying cultural objects, return assets and digitize the Vatican archives so community members can find out what the church has other in its vaults.

Bell, who grew up in Ontario, said she became fascinated with the Vatican’s collection of Indigenous artifacts after finding guidebooks from the 1920s on display.

“It’s kind of like a forgotten chapter, I guess, of Vatican history and religious history in the early 20th century,” Bell said.

After nearly a decade of research, Bell wrote a book about his findings and experiences while working in the archives in Rome, including the Historical Archives of Propaganda Fidethe Vatican Apostolic Archives (formerly called “secret archives”) and other religious archives in Italy, Canada and the United States.

Part of the book focuses on how the 1925 exposition excluded the voices of Indigenous peoples themselves.

“It was really about glorifying the Catholic Church and then covering up this history of seizure and missionary violence at that time,” Bell said.

A visitor admires a Raphael room inside the Vatican Museums on May 3, 2021. (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

She said these colonial narratives still exist in the Vatican and that the Church’s use of the terms “artifacts” and “objects” is problematic.

“These are the words the Vatican uses to cover up its colonial history,” she said.

“There is no discussion of artists or Indigenous communities and that is very problematic.”

His book is currently under contract with the University of Washington Press and is expected to be published within the next two years.

“It’s been…really emotional to work on this project, but also gratifying when I find examples of Indigenous artists and activists who were at this exhibit,” Bell said.

“I hope this project will inspire more research…and make it more accessible for Indigenous communities, artists and activists to learn about this unknown history.”