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Glenbow returns sacred objects

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Bruce Weir, Sweetgrass Writer, CALGARY







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The return of 251 sacred objects from Calgary's Glenbow Museum to the Blackfoot Confederacy marks both an end and a beginning. It is the end of 10 years of negotiations regarding the repatriation of objects vital to Blackfoot communities in Southern Alberta and the beginning of a new relationship between the museum and First Nations people.

The hand-over, which took place Jan. 14 at the Glenbow, brought leaders of the Siksika, Peigan, and Blood together with museum officials and Premier Ralph Klein.

For Klein, who is known to the Bloods as Rides Across the River and who also speaks Blackfoot, it was a satisfying conclusion to years of discussions.

"Through my association with the Blackfoot Nations... it was clear that so much was lost and there was so much that needed to be returned and this was just a wonderful day," Klein said.

The premier's personal connection to the Blackfoot also made for an emotional day and he shed a few tears at the conclusion of the signing when Elders seated in the auditorium's first rows burst into applause.

Klein has first-hand knowledge of the importance of the objects.

"When I went through my own naming ceremonies and as I participated in some of the ceremonies of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the complaint has always been 'we can't really do it the right way because we don't have all the right equipment.' This day, the right equipment will be restored."

The process of returning sacred objects will be extended to include other First Nations, Klein announced. In the upcoming session of the Alberta Legislature, he said "the government will begin a process of consultation that will result in legislation supporting the repatriation of certain sacred objects of all Alberta's First Nations."

The objects returned by the Glenbow included medicine pipes, headdresses and ceremonial bundles. Many came to the museum from private collectors but some came from the Blackfoot who were anxious to preserve them during a time when their culture was under threat.

The return of the objects will have a large impact on the members of the Blackfoot Confederacy, according to Frank Weasel Head, one of the signatories of the agreement.

"This is the essence of our lives as Blackfoot people. Our lives begin with these. As children, we connect our spirituality and our everyday life [to the sacred objects] and our children have sort of lost that," he said.

Like the premier, Weasel Head also has personal knowledge of the value of the sacred objects.

"Before I went to boarding school, I always saw a bundle being cared for by my mom and dad," he said. "They looked after it as they looked after us. They taught us by it, we learned by it, we learned respect, we learned responsibility to help care for it, but that was lost and now we have an opportunity... to regain those things."

This opportunity springs in large part from the respect and friendships that have developed between the Blackfoot Confederacy and Glenbow officials. This new relationship developed during the last 10 years as the Glenbow began lending sacred objects back to the Blackfoot.

"I always told people, 'you can have the bundle, but you also get me because I come around every year with the loan form,' said Gerry Conaty, the Glenbow's senior ethnographer. "For some people, it's hard to sign every year because they feel that it's their child but it is somehow still held as a ward of the state. But other people understood the intent behind this, that it was a way of keeping our bookkeepers happy that we knew where things that supposedly belonged to the Glenbow were ... and we became good friends."

Conaty said the strength of the new relationship will be a great asset to the museum which is currently working with the Blackfoot on a new gallery to be completed by the fall of 2001.

Irvine Scalplock of the Siksika saluted Conaty's commitment and the care he showed the bundles when they were in the museum's collection, but he also sounded a note of caution.

"Wehave a long journey ... before we can ever feel comfortable again. So much has been disrupted. The times have changed, attitudes have changed and all because those that were gifts from Creator were removed from our communities. The reality is that as First Nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy, we are now stepping forward to claim what is ours, the children that were taken away from our communities years ago."