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SICC ē-micimināyakik Gathering

On May 2-3, the Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Center hosted the ē-micimināyakik gathering, or the Indigenous museums gathering-- one of the first of its kind to be held in Canada. This gathering addressed many of the challenges and concerns around making accessible, preserving, and respecting both tangible and intangible elements of Indigenous history. ē-micimināyakik roughly translates to "holding on to things for everyone,"  and that was ultimately the idea at the heart of the gathering -- how can we (both as Indigenous and Newcomer curators) hold on to things in a good way, and particularly in a way that meets the needs of those people with whom the thing originated.

So, far from being a gathering targeted only at museums, interested participants came from a broad array of backgrounds including libraries and archives (like myself), copyright offices, and other cultural centers.

Below I will summarize some of the things I learned (note that this is from the perspective of a an archivist with a European Settler background).

  • All Things Have A Spirit- For many Indigenous people, cultural artifacts are viewed as living things, or relatives. In Indigenous heritage institutions such as the Haida Gwaii Museum there is an emphasis on bringing things back to life -- making use of things from the museum collection within the community. The living nature of the object may mean that it needs to be fed, smudged, and cared for in a different way than other artifacts. When in doubt, it is always best to consult with the elders of the community from which the artifact (tangible or intangible) originated. 
  • Intangible History Can Be Appropriated. . . and Repatriated - Robin Gray spoke about her efforts to retrieve Ts'myen songs which had been dispersed at a time when it was thought that the culture of her people was vanishing. This dispersion constituted, ultimately, an appropriation of her peoples' knowledge by other cultures. Robin Gray cites research as a mode of cultural dispossession, and the archive as a site of cultural dispossession. Being aware of the appropriation of both the tangible and intangible, and striving to repatriate from both of these perspectives will become an increasingly important task for archives if we want to become places not of dispossession, but of healing. 
  • Indigenous Peoples Have Their Own Laws -  In many Indigenous cultures, intellectual property is very much a part of governance. In some instances, oral histories may be considered equivalent to cases in Canadian case law, and like cases in case law, an understanding of many stories is needed to thoroughly understand Indigenous law. It has been suggested that each nation should have its own Freedom of Information and Privacy laws, as well as develop their own protocols for research being done with and among their people. For example, researchers should first get permission to perform the study in a good and non-offensive way, should present their data to the community they are working with, and should acknowledge the community as co-contributors on the finished product. Other legal areas of high relevance to Indigenous communities in this field relate to theft and wnership of artifacts, repatriation, statutes of limitations, and statutes of interpretation. 
  • Approaches to Partnership Between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Group in the Heritage Sector - From a settler perspective, it is important when working with Indigenous communities to work with all of the local Indigenous communities in your area. This means being aware of what Indigenous communities are present in your area. Know also that partnerships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities can mean more funding-pulling clout. Finally, respect First Nations and their rights to sovereignty, and acknowledge their process of nation building. 
  • Know what you don't know - From a non Indigenous perspective it is important to realize that settler approaches to keeping artifacts, as well as settler approaches to copyright and to heritage at large are not always the right or the best paths to pursue, particularly when dealing with non-settler artifacts and knowledge. Know that different cultural approaches to these things may, in fact, be entirely at counterpoints. 
  • Repatriation - Repatriation is the bringing of both tangible and intangible heritage home to its original community. The repatriation of ancestors, artifacts, and knowledge is an important step in the process of healing from centuries of inter-generational trauma.  Repatriation is a way to reconnect with old knowledge, and to revive old arts.  A repatriated object may experience physical, symbolic, or life-ending use (such as burial). Repatriation can be a long and complex process, involving lots of talking and collaboration, and a building of trust between both the museum repatriating the object, and the community it is being repatriated to.The process can be affected by funding, knowledge, capacity, processes, and people. Settler institutions should not be afraid to take the first step in repatriating something back to its original community, as too often the onus for seeking out appropriated cultural artifacts lies with Indigenous communities. 
  • Preservation - Sans Chemicals - Keep a history of any pesticides used on an article. Definitely track this history down prior to repatriation of any object, as the toxicity of the object may have an impact on how it can be safely used by the community once repatriated. To figure out the history of contamination, review any written history, talk to old staff members, look for physical evidence of contamination, read up on how pesticides have been used in museums in the past, perform spot tests. Also, where necessary, change the access policy for contaminated collections. The speaker on this subject, Nancy Odegaard, also made the very good point that if something is of significant age, but in excellent condition, it might be prudent to suspect that some sort of pesticide had been used on it in the past. For safety, when inspecting items that may have contaminants, use gloves and always perform inspections in a well ventilated area. Finally, Odegaard suggested some ways in which pesticides could be removed, or their effects mitigated: First, the chemical needed to be identified and its presence on the object measured. Second, a vacuum with a HEPA filter is often used, at low suction. Third, washing is also often an option. The mass of the object must be known prior to washing, and a portion of the object must be tested to determine whether dyes will bleed. When washing, minimal agitation must be used, and the object must be air/blot dried. Once contaminants have been identified within a collection, keeping WHMIS safety data sheets is a good idea. 
  • Indigenous classification - We need to be aware of the colonial biases inherent in much of the classification language applied in museums and archives today. For example, talking of something as a craft or handicraft rather than as a work of art can often undermine the level of skill and expertise, as well as aesthetic awareness required in its creation. Where possible, it is always best to use the language of the culture in which the item was created in its description. Annie Bosum from the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute gave a talk about implementing the Brian Deer Classification system in her library. This a library classification system which allows for classification by traditional place and person names in a way that is more intuitive for shelf browsing by Indigenous users than Western classification systems tend to be. For example, rather than being sorted by subject and then by author, Brian Deer as implemented by the  Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute adds another layer, sorting by subject, and then by place (under the traditional place name), and then by author, date, and volume. This means that if, for example, the subject is "beading", the books can be divided up by place or nation before being divided by author, allowing for a more comprehensive browsing experience that acknowledges the importance of place.   

Tools and Resources: 

  • Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums - ATALM is an international non-profit organization that maintains a network of support for indigenous programs, provides culturally relevant programming and services, encourages collaboration among tribal and non-tribal cultural institutions, and articulates contemporary issues related to developing and sustaining the cultural sovereignty of Native Nations.
  • Great Lakes Research Alliance for the Study of Aboriginal Arts and Culture - is a network of people who meet, work together, and share ideas to learn about the histories, languages and cultures of the Great Lakes, as well as a database that digitally reunites Great Lakes materials from around the world, putting heritage items back into relationships with each other and with community members, teachers, researchers, and heritage staff.
  • Indigenous Repatriation Handbook  - Prepared by the Royal BC Museum and the Haida Gwaii Museum outlining some of the steps they have taken in repatriation, and how they went about it. 
  • Institute of American Indian Arts - At IAIA, the spirit and vision of Native American and Alaska Native people is a first priority. Founded on October 1, 1962, the Institute of American Indian Arts offers academic excellence to both Native and non-Native populations. Their goal is empowerment through education, economic self-sufficiency and expression and enhancement of artistic and cultural traditions.


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