Bones of contention
Algonquin artifacts are finally laid to rest.
Story by Katie Wallace
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,
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
conferred on an appropriate reburial, eventually deciding on traditional
cedar and birchbark boxes lined with cedar chips, muskrat and beaver
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.
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.
|"It's a reclaiming of our ancestry. It's
a reclaiming of our story."
of the Kitigan Zibi
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
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
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."
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
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.