A dispute has arisen between representatives of the Siksika nation and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Devon over a delay in the repatriation of regalia belonging to the 19th century indigenous chief, Crowfoot.
The relics were given to Cecil Denny, an officer with the North-West Mounted Police, at the signing of the historic Treaty No.7 with the Blackfoot people as a means of showing that the words of the treaty would be honoured; the items, including a buckskin shirt, leggings, bags and pouches, were later sold to the Exeter museum for £10.
In 2015, the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park (BCHP), a cultural heritage centre on the site where the treaty was signed in Alberta, Canada, formally requested the return of the objects. The centre has been chosen by descendants of Chief Crowfoot of the Siksika nation, which is part of the Blackfoot Confederacy, to house the relics. A purpose-built gallery has been created to display them.
But there’s growing frustration over the repatriation process, which has stalled partly because the centre is not accredited by the Canadian Museums Association. The centre’s general manager, Stephen Yellow Old Woman, told the Guardian this week, “we are currently in our second decade of repatriation efforts with no end in sight”. He said it was as if the “Siksika and Crowfoot are currently in a long dark tunnel”.
The newspaper reported that there was “resistance” to repatriating the items from the museum. According to the Guardian, RAMM officials told Siksika representatives that “no-one wants to get their hands dirty” on repatriation as the debate over the return of colonial-era objects in museums intensifies.
A spokeswoman from the museum said some of the reporting around the case was inaccurate and that RAMM was not “fundamentally opposed” to repatriation. The process was taking a long time because the museum had to follow due diligence, she said.
According to the museum, a request was made in 2016 for details on how the items would be cared for, including details on showcases and environmental readings for the gallery. The museum said: “We have not received the information from BCHP but have provided assistance including technical information to help them in the building of the new facility.”
Camilla Hampshire, the museum manager at RAMM, said: “We take repatriation and decolonisation very seriously. Since the late 1990s, the museum has received a small number of requests for the return of cultural objects. These are dealt with on a case by case basis, and human remains and sacred artefacts have been returned to indigenous communities, e.g. Tasmanian and Southern Australian Aboriginal people, and Maori communities.
“We appreciate that the regalia is of great importance to the Blackfoot people. Under RAMM’s current policy, the museum has an ethical obligation to carry out due diligence to ensure the long-term preservation of the returned material.
“In a spirit of co-operation to progress the repatriation request, RAMM has written directly to the Siksika Tribal Council, who are elected representatives of the Siksika nation to establish their interest in this request, as they are official representatives of the community. The letter asked for information on the governance relationship between BCHP and the tribal council and a clarification on whether it is proposed the future ownership of the regalia should lie with BCHP or the Siksika Tribal Council.”
The final decision on the repatriation will rest with councillors at Exeter City Council (ECC). Hampshire said: “We are proposing that the request is considered by ECC Executive Committee in June 2020 and Council in mid-July.”
The BCHP has been contacted for comment.
The row comes amid a growing conversation about decolonisation and repatriation among UK museums. Arts Council England recently closed recruitment for an expert to write new guidelines on repatriation, while the Museums Association launched a working group on decolonisation last year.