Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Seek Return of Chief's Regalia
June 12, 2007 11:43 AM
NOTE: The following is a feature story from the Office of Aboriginal Affairs.
An artifact of the Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq sits in a dark, climate-controlled room of a museum in Melbourne, Australia. It's clothing that was created for, and worn by, a band chief in the mid-19th century. Called a Chief's Regalia, it's estimated to be worth more than half-a-million dollars. The Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia would like to have it back, and it seems Museum Victoria is willing to oblige, but the process is far from over.
The Chief's Regalia includes coat, leggings, and moccasins made of navy-coloured wool duffel. Decorated with red, olive and gold silk ribbon appliqué and embroidery, the Regalia also showcases intricate beadwork -- hundreds of tiny glass beads are attached by moose or horse hair. The outfit was the property of Louis Benjamin Peminuit Paul, a chief from the Sipekne'katik District -- today's Colchester County area. Records show that it was sold to a captain in the British military in 1840. This man, S.D.S. Huyghue, had been serving in Nova Scotia and later returned to Great Britain. In 1851, he emigrated to Australia and, after his death, the items were donated to the museum.
The Chief's Regalia has never been part of an exhibit in Australia. This pleases David Christianson, the manager of collections at the Nova Scotia Museum. Light and humidity are enemies of conservation, he says. Australia's dry climate and the fact that the Regalia has never been under display lighting have helped enormously.
"It's been very well looked after and is just in immaculate condition," Christianson says.
He notes that this particular artifact is better preserved than the one the Nova Scotia Museum exhibits – another 19th century Chief's Regalia from the Mi'kmaq in Miramichi.
Tim Bernard, the director of history and culture at the Confederacy of Mainland Mi'kmaq, is one of a team working to bring the Nova Scotia Regalia home. He's quick to point out that the half-million-dollar price tag is not what the Mi'kmaw community is after.
"We aren't looking for this material to be returned to us based on its monetary value. It's priceless. For us, it's the cultural value. We have so few artifacts from our past," Bernard says.
He sits on the culture and heritage committee of the Mi'kmaq-Nova Scotia-Canada Tripartite Forum. Formed in 1997 as a partnership between Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq, the province of Nova Scotia, and the government of Canada, the forum's goals are to strengthen relationships and to resolve issues of mutual concern affecting Mi'kmaw communities. The repatriation, or return, of the Chief's Regalia is one of the main goals of the committee.
So far, it has been an uphill battle. Repatriation of heritage objects is fraught with complexities. Within the last decade, museums around the world have experienced an increase in the number of repatriation requests, often from indigenous peoples seeking the return of culturally significant items.
"Museum Victoria wants to know what our processes are, and rightly so," says Bernard. "They want to be assured that the Regalia isn't going to end up with a private collector and that it's something everyone will benefit from."
Christianson points out an emerging ethic among museums.
"If a museum finds that any of its material was obtained through illegal or unethical means, the museum will make an effort to return those objects," he says.
There has been no suggestion that the Chief's Regalia was stolen or obtained unethically, so the Mi'kmaq cannot demand repatriation. Instead, Christianson says, they may need to look at a cultural exchange, trading the Regalia for something else Australians could benefit from.
"It's a different kind of repatriation. Frankly, it's more complex and difficult in that way."
The Mi'kmaw community hoped to bring the Regalia home last year for the opening of the Glooscap Heritage Centre near Truro. In fact, a special climate-controlled exhibit case has been designed for this piece of their history. A life-size colour portrait of the Regalia sits inside the case, holding space for the real thing.
Deborah Ginnish, co-ordinator at the Mi'kmaq Association for Cultural Studies, is working with Bernard on the repatriation project.
"Right now, we're at a stand still. Not much is happening with our request," she says.
Ginnish suspects Museum Victoria is being deluged with similar requests and may be backlogged.
The repatriation process could take years, and it was suggested that having the Regalia on "loan" may be an interim measure. Museum Victoria has stated that they would loan the Regalia to another museum, but not a Heritage Centre like Glooscap. So the Nova Scotia Museum has offered to make an application for the Regalia with the written intent to have it housed at the Glooscap centre.
The Nova Scotia Museum has small collections on loan to several Mi'kmaw community cultural centres. Bernard says the Nation looks forward to the day when the entire collection at the Nova Scotia Musuem is housed with the Mi'kmaq.
"We want it all to be part of a Mi'kmaw collection that is cared for by our community," he says. "We want the stories to be told from a Mi'kmaw perspective. At the same time, we're very appreciative that someone has taken good care of that material in the meantime."
When the Regalia is returned, its ownership will not be held by any one band. It will be held on behalf of the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia at the Glooscap Heritage Centre.
"It's a piece of our history, our culture, and we'd like to bring it back to where it originally belongs, to the Mi'kmaq," says Ginnish. "We want to display it with pride."
Media Contact: John Soosaar