As they walked through a private exhibit prepared for them in the Vatican Museums on Tuesday, dozens of Indigenous delegates from Canada saw beautiful pieces of history from their homelands: Inuit carvings, a Haudenosaunee pipe given to Pope John Paul II in 1980, an 1831 wampum sash, embroidered gloves and a beaded Gwich’in tunic.
Members of the group, who are in Rome this week for a series of historic talks with Pope Francis on the legacy of Canada’s church-run residential school system, felt mixed emotions. For Marie-Anne Day Walker-Pelletier, a retired Chief of the Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan and residential school survivor, seeing the artifacts brought back painful memories.
“We don’t know if these artifacts had the proper spiritual ceremony to protect them in this way,” she said after the visit. These items, she added, “must be restored and brought back and repatriated to the First Nations represented therein.”
“You can’t reconcile your story if you don’t know what your story was. And if your items are in other countries, that certainly doesn’t fill your entire community while you heal.
Métis and Inuit delegations meet with the Pope in a pair of private meetings on Monday; a First Nations delegation will have their own private meeting with him on Thursday. The pope will then hold a general audience with the three groups on Friday.
Delegates are demanding an apology for the devastating harms suffered by children in residential schools, as well as reparations and access to the church’s historical archives. And some are also asking the pope to return indigenous artifacts, many of which are stored in the vaults and museums of the Vatican.
Tuesday’s tour included a one-hour tour of the Vatican Museums, with a stop at the Sistine Chapel. It ended with a private interview the presentation of part of the museums’ ethnological collection, known as the Anima Mundi. Some objects had never been exhibited before.
Labels on some of the artifacts said they were gifts, but in most cases it was unclear how they came into the possession of the Vatican.
Several delegates said they were angry to see sacred and personal items housed so far from their communities. Some expressed admiration for the beauty of the items and said they wished the items were more accessible. And many said they wanted to see them go home.
“I was a bit disappointed,” said Gerald Antoine, Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief, AFN Senior Delegate in Rome and residential school survivor. “I was very curious to know what kind of collections the Vatican has. There were only a few items that were put on the table… We didn’t really look into where all the collections were.
“I welcome the gesture,” he said. But he added that he had hoped to dig deeper into the collections, in order to understand how the Vatican had acquired the objects.
The Globe and Mail requested an interview with the museum curator on March 17, through the Holy See’s press office, and received no response.
Some delegates saw the exhibition as an important first step towards a deeper dialogue on what is there and what needs to be returned.
The private display included a 4.4 meter sealskin kayak, at least a century old and one of only six of its type known to have survived to the present day. It has recently been a point of contention. The Vatican said the kayak and other items from the Mackenzie River Delta in the western Canadian Arctic were gifts. Some Inuit are skeptical of this story.
After The Globe wrote an article about kayaking in November, Duane Ningaqsiq Smith, president and CEO of the Inuvialuit Regional Corp. in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, called for the return of kayaking. “This kayak is a piece of Inuvialuit history, made according to Inuvialuit traditions. It is not ‘the pope’s kayak’ and rightfully belongs to the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, where its lessons and significance can benefit Inuvialuit culture and communities,” he said.
Inuit elder Martha Greig, a residential school survivor from northern Quebec who was in Rome as part of the Inuit delegation, said she would also like the kayak returned. “It would be very nice to get it back,” she said as she entered the Vatican Museums. “Not everyone has seen an original kayak, especially our young people.”
The kayak and other Indigenous Canadian artifacts currently housed in the Vatican Museums were collected in 1924 by Joseph Élie Breynat, a Roman Catholic bishop from the Mackenzie region. He shipped them to Rome, where they were part of Pope Pius XI’s World Exhibition of Indigenous Artifacts a year later. Around 100,000 objects from the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australasia were displayed for a year, after which most of the extensive collection was put into storage.
The kayak has been stored and stored for the better part of a century and has not been on public display for at least two decades. It was taken out of storage for the native visit by Father Nicola Mapelli, curator of Anima Mundi, who spoke with visitors from Canada.
Anima Mundi intends to restore the kayak in collaboration with the Inuvialuit. When Father Mapelli spoke to the Globe in November, he offered to travel to the Mackenzie region to learn more about restoration methods, and he said the kayak could go on tour after being repaired.
During Tuesday’s kayaking demonstration, Inuk Chief Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, stood quietly. “To me, it’s a nice functional part of our culture. And it’s wonderful to see it,” he said. “The circumstances of how he got here, I don’t really know.”
He said the kayak is a “living reminder of our culture” and that it’s up to the Inuvialuit, who made it, to work with the Catholic Church. on the management of the article.
The Globe and Mail
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