After a “very emotional day” of ceremony on May 19 at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery in Exeter, England, regalia from Chief Crowfoot is on its way home to the Siksika Nation.
“There’s a living spirit in this material coming home,” said Herman Yellow Old Woman, who along with Kent Ayoungman performed the ceremonial songs.
The items were to have been returned in 2020, but the onset of the coronavirus pandemic delayed repatriation by two years.
Siksika Nation Chief Ouray Crowfoot, who led the small delegation to England, called the work that had been undertaken “very ground-breaking, not just for us, but for other First Nations, for other Indigenous people to repatriate these items.”
He noted that the trip from London to Exeter involved stopping at a number of museums along the way where other Blackfoot items were identified. Now relationships are begin formed with different curators as a new list of Blackfoot items to be repatriated is being created.
“A lot of these items have spread all over the world, but now it’s like their spirits are calling to bring us back home…We want to continue to bring more and more and more items back home,” said Crowfoot. “It’s about building these relationships.”
It’s that relationship, said Jon-Paul Hedge, director at Exeter City Council, that led to council passing a unanimous motion to return the items.
“This is very much in the spirit of the wishes of the people of Exeter, fully supportive of this and we’re absolutely delighted,” said Hedge. “It’s the start of a new relationship.”
Crowfoot’s regalia had been loaned to the museum in Exeter in 1878, a year after being acquired by Cecil Denny, who served as a Northwest Mounted Police for a time and was also one of the signatories of Treaty 7 in 1877 along with Crowfoot.
In 1904, the museum purchased the regalia. In 2013, the Siksika Nation went to Exeter and issued a formal request for the items to be repatriated. Those items include a buckskin shirt, a pair of leggings, a knife with feather bundle, two beaded bags and a horsewhip.
Elders from the Blackfoot Confederacy made their first trip to England in 2011 where they attended a conference at Oxford and Blackfoot items were unveiled. Ayoungman and Yellow Old Woman were part of that delegation too and they performed ceremonial songs.
That was also “very touching,” said Ayoungman.
Hedge said Exeter will work with other museums to help the repatriation process along.
“This isn’t a one-and-done,” said Hedge. “We’ve got some learning from having gone through this experience from a city council and museum point of view…We can share that experience to maybe speed up the process with other institutions.”
Crowfoot said he felt a “mutual respect” in dealing with the other curators.
“It may have taken 10-15 years to get that door open, but now the door’s open so it’s not going to be another 10-15 years to reopen it. That’s why I’ve said it’s all important in how you build these relationships. It’s just as important of what you do; it’s more important as to how we’re doing it,” said Crowfoot.
Yellow Old Woman agreed.
“It’s only been 30 years in North America that we’ve been repatriating into our communities. So for overseas it’s going to be a learning process, not only for the museums but also the customs (in airports). It’s nothing that they’ve ever experienced. It’s totally new,” he said.
As for the Crowfoot regalia, a shipping company that specializes in antiquities will undertake the packaging and transportation.
A coming home ceremony is scheduled for May 25 in Calgary.
The Siksika Nation will lend Chief Crowfoot’s belongings to the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park for display.
However, said Yellow Old Woman, there is the possibility that some of the items may be transferred to people who have been raised in the Siksika ways and who “will take the responsibility in putting them back in the cycle that they were in when they left home 130 years ago.”
Crowfoot said he “definitely” felt connected to the items.
“When these things come back to Siksika, somebody comes into Blackfoot Crossing and they…have that intimate relationship with some of these things. It’s a physical connection that ties you back to your ancestors and even if you’re not a Crowfoot you’re still a Blackfoot,” said Crowfoot.