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The Ottawa Valley

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Burying the past

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From the CG vault
This stone point was found on Morrison Island and dates back 2000 years. The Mercer formation stone that it is carved from is only found south of the Great Lakes in Ohio, Illinois and Missouri. (PHOTO: Canadian Museum of Civilization, photographer Jean-Luc Pilon, catalogue no. BKGg-10:11A)

Bones of contention
Algonquin artifacts are finally laid to rest.
Story by Katie Wallace

Learn more:
• Allumette Islands (map)

External links:
• Canadian Museum of Civilization

It was an apt way to celebrate National Aboriginal Day.

On June 21, 2005, community members and elders from a number of the 10 Algonquian nations convened on the Kitigan Zibi reservation in Kanawagi, Quebec, to inter ancestral human remains and burial goods — some dating back 6,000 years.

The ceremony marks the end of a journey spanning thousands of years and many miles. The remains and artifacts, including beads, tools and weapons, were originally excavated from various sites in the Ottawa Valley, including Morrison and the Allumette Islands (map). They had been part of the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s (CMC) research collection for decades, some since the late 1800s. Elders from various Algonquin communities conferred on an appropriate reburial, eventually deciding on traditional cedar and birchbark boxes lined with cedar chips, muskrat and beaver pelts.


Now, an inconspicuous rock mound marks the reburial site, where close to 90 boxes of various sizes are buried. “It’s not a tourist site but a place of reflection,” says Gilbert Whiteduck, a Kitigan Zibi community member who spent two years working to bring the remains and burial goods home. Although Whiteduck says negotiations were at times tense, the museum and Kitigan Zibi community were able to reach agreement.

"It's a reclaiming of our ancestry. It's a reclaiming of our story."
- Gilbert Whiteduck,
of the Kitigan Zibi
They met beside the Ottawa River, or Kichi Sibi, Algonquin for “ Great River ,” on June 19 for a symbolic repatriation ceremony that included signing a statement of goodwill written on birchbark. Whiteduck points out that the CMC is built on traditional Algonquin land and that modern-day Ottawa itself is at the heart of that territory.

Along with the remains and burial goods, the museum also donated the exhibit “Kichi Sibi: Tracing Our Region’s Ancient History,” which explores more than 8,000 years of settlement in the Ottawa Valley. The exhibit is displayed in the new Kitigan Zibi cultural centre, which was, ironically, designed by architect Douglas Cardinal, who also designed the Museum of Civilization.

Jean-Luc Pilon, the CMC’s curator of Ontario archaeology, authored the exhibit. He says it reflects the broad brushstrokes of the region’s occupation. “You can see the big steps,” he says, pointing to artifacts such as ceramic cooking pots, pendants, and tools and weapons made of copper, stone, bone and antler as physical evidence of how people lived.

The exhibit also contains a number of trade goods, including artifacts made from Lake Superior copper and stone chips from the far tip of Labrador. “These are incredible distances,” he says. “People here did not live in a closed vacuum. They were very much involved in a continent-wide communication system.”

The rich scientific value of these kinds of ancient artifacts, and their ability to shed light on past cultures, was a central bone of contention during the repatriation negotiations. “I fully understand their perspective from a human level,” Pilon says. But he also sees the reburial as a loss to science, that the remains and artifacts “have a lot to tell us.”

To Whiteduck, though, that loss is counterbalanced by the repatriation’s spiritual and symbolic value. “It’s a reclaiming of our ancestry, it’s a reclaiming of our story,” he says. “It’s that reclaiming of what’s been taken away.”

"People here did not live in a closed vacuum. They were very much involved in a continent-wide communication system."
- Jean-Luc Pilon,
Canadian Museum of Civilization

The first time he visited the remains and artifacts in the museum, Whiteduck says “something very significant, very spiritual happened.” He felt no doubt that the collection should be returned. “I knew, along with the people that I was with, that they had to be taken out of there,” says Whiteduck.

Pilon and Whiteduck agree that repatriation is a growing movement, one that needs to be addressed. In August, the Kitigan Zibi community hosted a second annual repatriation conference, bringing together First Nations peoples and researchers from across Canada and the United States.

Ultimately, Whiteduck hopes a guiding framework for future repatriations can be agreed upon, as well as a plan to map out known burial sites. “We offered to host it so the dialogue can continue between First Nations, scientists and museum administrators,” says Whiteduck.

Meanwhile, the reburial mound on the Kitigan Zibi reservation serves as a tangible reminder of what this kind of dialogue can accomplish.

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