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‘These belong to our communities’: Delegates tour Vatican artifacts collection

ROME — Marie-Anne Day Walker-Pelletier sat in a taxi as she left a private tour of the Vatican Museums and was lost in thought.

ROME — Marie-Anne Day Walker-Pelletier sat in a taxi as she left a private tour of the Vatican Museums and was lost in thought.

“It’s 2022 and our history is stored and shown in other countries where no one understands,” the retired chief of the Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan mused aloud on Tuesday.

“These objects, these artifacts…these are ours. They belong to our communities. They belong to people. They belong to generations.”

Indigenous delegates who traveled to Rome to meet Pope Francis had access to the Anima Mundi Ethnological Museum, which includes part of the Vatican’s collection of Indigenous artifacts.

Some of this collection has not been seen publicly for decades or ever.

Walker-Pelletier, a residential school survivor, said she looked at the objects and thought about how the artifacts tell the truth about Indigenous life, history and communities.

If the Roman Catholic Church is committed to truth and reconciliation, she said, it must also open the collection.

“That’s one of the things the pope needs to look at, how to reconcile and bring the artifacts back,” Walker-Pelletier said.

Conservators and Indigenous experts said they were unable to access the unknown number of items in the possession of the church.

Much of the Vatican’s current collection comes from a former pope who decided to hold a world’s fair in 1925. A message was then sent to missionaries around the world to send in items. More than 100,000 objects and works of art were exhibited.

The Vatican said parts of its collection were gifts to popes and the church. In 2019, the pope has pledged to exhibit many more objects, including those of indigenous peoples.

The collection is known to contain masks, wampum belts, pipes and rugs, as well as other items from indigenous communities across North America.

Delegates saw a rare Inuvialuit-made kayak on Tuesday. The Inuvialuit Regional Corp. asked last year for it to be returned to him.

There were also embroidered gloves from a Cree community, a baby sash from a Gwich’in community, moccasins from British Columbia and many other items on display for the delegates.

Many items were taken from Indigenous peoples after the Canadian government banned cultural practices through the Indian Act in 1876. Ceremonial objects and other significant objects were seized, then sold, donated to museums or destroyed.

Kukpi7 Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in British Columbia said she was conflicted while browsing the collection. During her stay in Rome, she felt so far from home and everything is so different.

“It was, in a way, it was a bit of a homecoming feeling,” Casimir said of how she felt in the museum.

She said she wished she had more time to think about the objects and take pictures. She knows that many people in her home community were interested in what the Vatican had.

Global outrage was sparked last year after Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announced that potentially unmarked graves had been discovered at the former boarding school.

Casimir said she joined the delegation to get information and make a difference and promote healing in her community.

“So far today, I feel good about what I’m doing.”

She and other First Nations delegates are scheduled to meet Francis on Thursday. Metis and Inuit delegates met with him on Monday.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement that the artifacts represent a range of works by Indigenous artists from various parts of Canada. The bishops said they had been preserved as part of a broader commitment to inclusion and dialogue, and “to celebrate diverse cultures around the world.”

The Bishops said the Oceania region exhibit was developed in collaboration with indigenous peoples. The group added that the North American exhibit, which would include Indigenous artifacts from Canada, has yet to be developed. The bishops said the Vatican is open to working with indigenous communities to discuss the future of the objects and whether they should be displayed or repatriated.

“Thus, the items that were shown to delegates today were presented simply with the information the museum currently has about their provenance and history,” the Bishops said.

Mitch Case, a historian who is also a regional councilor for the Métis Nation of Ontario, said he had not seen any identified Métis items.

“I don’t think it’s because there’s no mixed-race stuff there,” Case said.

Case said that at the time the objects were collected, most mixed-race communities were devoutly Catholic. He wondered why, if there were Métis items, they weren’t on display knowing the delegation was coming.

He said this demonstrates why transparency about collections is extremely important.

“Because we don’t know what’s in it, I can’t judge if it was deliberate. I just don’t know.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on March 29, 2022.

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press