Inuit leader says Vatican Museums open to repatriating Indigenous artifacts

Many indigenous delegates meeting the pope this week ended a private tour of the Vatican Museums yesterday disappointed, but the head of the Inuit delegation says the curator of the ethnological museum told him the Vatican was open to returning valuable cultural property . has in his possession.

Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), met with Father Nicola Mapelli for a few hours at Obed’s request after touring the museums, including the Sistine Chapel and some of Canada’s indigenous cultural artifacts in a new Anima Mundi Exhibition which is not yet open to the public.

“The curator was pretty open to any scenario we came up with, including repatriation,” Obed said.

“Nothing is on the table, as they told us.”

Delegates saw only part of the Vatican’s collection of indigenous pieces, including a rare, century-old kayak from Inuvialuit in the Western Arctic.

ITK board member Duane Smith, who is also president and CEO of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, called on the Vatican to return kayaking to the Inuit.

During Obed’s conversation with Mapelli, the curator explained how the Vatican Museums were working with a number of different indigenous peoples, most recently in Australia, to decide what was best for the pieces the Vatican has in its collections, Obed said.

Curator describes kayaking records to Natan Obed

The story of how kayaking got to the Vatican is still a mystery.

The Vatican says it was sent for exhibition in 1925, along with tens of thousands of indigenous cultural pieces from around the world, but the question of who made it, what community it came from and whether it was offered is still unclear.

Obed doesn’t know all the details, but he was told it was part of a call for examples of cultural expression against fascism, Nazism and racism in the early 20th century.

“The kayaking is beautiful,” Obed said. “It’s a wonderful expression of our culture and our craftsmanship, and it was really nice to see it.”

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Mapelli has records that show the kayak came from Edmonton before heading to Vatican City by boat across the Atlantic Ocean and showed no visible signs of wear once it arrived.

Obed said more conversations need to happen about what’s happening alongside kayaking and other cultural elements, including Mapelli’s connection to Smith.

“I hope the best possible decisions can be made regarding these pieces, which are important,” Obed said.

Other delegates, who want to see their cultural pieces repatriated, are upset with the way the Vatican presents their history and demand to be involved in future decisions.

No mention of residential schools at Aboriginal exhibit

First Nations delegate Norman Yakeleya, whose traditional surname is Yakeula, of the Dene Nation in the Northwest Territories, said he was disturbed after seeing a sacred ceremonial pipe on display by the Vatican.

“Some elders told me it wasn’t for show,” Yakeleya said. “It was there, on display, and it was something I didn’t feel good about.

Yakeleya says the artifacts should be repatriated to their rightful owners: ceremonial people.

“They can make plastic models if they want, but give us the real thing,” Yakeleya said.

“For God’s sake, return them to our people.”

Norman Yakeleya, whose traditional surname is Yakeula, is a residential school survivor who would like to see items from the Vatican’s Indigenous Artifacts Collection returned to the communities from which they came. “They can make plastic models if they want, but give us the real thing,” he said. (Olivia Stefanovitch/CBC)

Yakeleya is a residential school survivor who attended the Roman Catholic-run Grollier Hall in Inuvik, Northwest Territories.

When he walked through the school gates at age five, he was given a number that was put on his shirts and glasses.

One of the numbers given to him during the eight years he attended Grollier Hall was 153.

“If they called 153, I would have to raise my hand, and that’s how they would identify me,” Yakelaya said.

“Where the hell would they do that to a human being?” »

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Yakeleya was also disappointed that the new Anima Mundi exhibit made no mention of Canada’s residential school system, day schools or racially segregated Indian hospitals.

“They don’t show the story of why we’re here,” Yakelaya said.

“A lot of people visit the Vatican Museum, but they also need to know that there is a dark side that they need to be exposed to.”

Metis the leader ended the tour “pretty empty and unsatisfied”

Vatican Museums officials said in a statement that management “prefers not to answer” questions about indigenous cultural property in the possession of the museum.

But the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said Mapelli spoke to delegates about his desire to work with them to learn more about Canada’s artifacts, ask for their advice on what should be returned to local communities and what should be shared with the seven members of the museum. million annual visitors.

Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council (MNC), asked the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops before the trip to Rome to work with the museum to obtain a list of all indigenous artifacts, but did not receive any. .

“I felt well prepared to go there,” Caron said.

“When we arrived, really, I was quite disappointed… We didn’t have a chance to go get our items and start identifying what might be there.”

Outside the entrance to the Vatican Museums in Vatican City. (Olivia Stefanovitch/CBC)

There was no glass protecting the objects and little information explaining the stories behind them.

Caron said MNC wants to catalog all items and identify community members who can tell the stories behind the cultural assets and a path to bring them home if that is what their communities want.

“It left me with a feeling of emptiness and dissatisfaction,” Caron said.

One of the museum directors kept telling delegates that cultural objects do not belong to the Vatican but museums are the custodians of the objects, Caron said.

“I kept thinking to myself, ‘Well, why can’t we be custodians of our own things? ‘” she said.