A ceremony has been held at Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter to hand over relics belonging the 19th-century indigenous leader Isapo-Muxika, who was known as Chief Crowfoot.
A delegation from Siksika First Nation, which is part of the Blackfoot Confederacy, travelled to the UK to receive the ceremonial items, which include a buckskin shirt, leggings, a knife with a feather bundle, beaded bags and a horsewhip.
The relics were given to Cecil Denny, an officer with the North-West Mounted Police, in 1877 at the signing of the historic Treaty No.7 at Blackfoot Crossing, in what is today the south of Alberta, Canada. The treaty agreed that land traditionally owned by the Blackfoot Confederacy would be exchanged for reservation territory, hunting and fishing rights and annual payments from the Canadian Government.
The items were offered by Chief Crowfoot as a means of showing the Blackfoot people would honour the words of the treaty; Denny's sister loaned the artefacts to RAMM in 1878 and sold them to the museum for £10 in 1904.
At a press conference following the ceremony yesterday, Chief Ouray Crowfoot said the handover of the artefacts had been “powerful and emotional”.
Elder assisting chief and council Herman Yellow Old Woman said the return of the items was a spiritual moment: “A lot of these items were spread all over the world but now it’s like their spirit is calling us to bring them back home – each piece is adding to the puzzle but we want to bring every piece back home to make our puzzle complete.”
The Siksika delegation said they were keen to continue building relationships with other museums in the UK that hold Blackfoot artefacts in order to help them understand the items better and work towards repatriation.
Depending on their condition, some of the artefacts may be transferred back into use on their return and others will be displayed in a specially built room at Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park, a museum of Siksika cultural heritage.
The handover ceremony, which was delayed due to Covid, comes two years after Exeter City Council voted unanimously to repatriate the items.
Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park first submitted a repatriation request in 2015. In early 2020, Siksika representatives publicly raised concerns over the how long the negotiations were taking. RAMM said it had been legally obliged to follow due diligence to ascertain how the objects would be cared for.
The case highlighted a wider debate over the ethical and legal considerations around repatriation. In recent years a number of museums in the UK have begun undertaking returns to communities of origin without precondition.