More than a dozen representatives from Aboriginal nations across Canada gathered to voice opposition to the opening of The Spirit Sings exhibition, in Calgary, Thursday, Jan. 14.
The exhibition, heralded as the flagship of the 1988 Olympic Arts Festival, is the target of a boycott by the Lubicon band which is in a battle with the federal government over their land claim.
They oppose the exhibit because they contend the exhibition's exclusive corporation sponsor, Shell Oil, is responsible for the destruction of their lifestyle.
"We look at the people involved with Glenbow, the people sponsoring The Spirit Sings, as our enemies. They are destroying us at a community level," said Lubicon Chief Bernard Ominayak, shortly before the opening ceremonies.
Joining Ominayak in his protest were Native leaders from Newfoundland, Quebec and British Columbia.
"I say if we share the flame, we should share the blame and we should share the shame," said Grand Chief Matthew Coon-Come of the Grand Council of the Quebec Crees. "It is a national shame for the Canadian people to allow the governments of Alberta and Canada to continue this bureaucratic warfare."
Coon-Come's sentiment was expressed by other Native leaders as well as Native and non-Native supporters of the Lubicons, when the protest took to the street.
A crowd of around 150 protesters gathered at the entrance to the Glenbow Museum to march peacefully under the careful watch of city police.
Meanwhile, inside the Glenbow Museum 2,500 people gathered to hear Foreign Affairs Minister Joe Clark, Calgary Mayor Ralph Klein, Glenbow Chairman David Tavender and other dignitaries officially open the exhibit. Opening prayers by Jim Many Bears of the Blackfoot band started the ceremony.
"As you see this exhibition, you will appreciate the traditions, culture, and above all, the spiritual and artistic heritage of the Native people," said Tavender.
"Let us open this exhibition with a sense of pride. Let us first and foremost enjoy the magnificent art display," added Klein.
But, for many of the Natives protesting outside the museum, the priceless relics are more than magnificent pieces of art.
"These artefacts which museum curators call artefacts are to us living spirits," said Grand Chief Joseph Norton of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake in Quebec.
"We are fed up. We will no longer stand for it, no longer be insulted by having our national treasurers displayed," added Norton. "These things were either stolen (from us) or bought illegally in some fashion."
Later that day the Mohawks filed an injunction in Court of Queen's Bench against the Glenbow to have several artefacts removed from display. That injunction was granted Jan. 15.
Of greatest concern to the Mohawks was a false face mask considered sacred to them. Norton said the mask belongs to their spiritual leaders, the Medicine Society, and that even Mohawk people have limited access to it.
Glenbow curator Duncan Cameron would not comment on the mask or other artefacts on exhibit.
But Glenbow public relations officer John Gilchrist said efforts were made to avoid offending the Indian population.
"The curators worked very hard to not bring out anything that had religious or sacred connotation," said Gilchrist.
Glenbow Museum officials are calling the opening a success and are denying that the protest had any affect. But the removal of the false face mask may only be the first of several injunctions to affect the display.
Other leaders say they, too, will seek injunctions against the Glenbow, pending on the result of the Mohawk hearing, scheduled for next week.
And support for the Lubicons is growing. Also present for the protest were: Gregg Smith, Indian Association of Alberta president; Narcisse Blood, Treaty 7 president; Larry Desmeules, Metis Association president; Chief Michael Jo, Conne River band, Newfoundland; Chief Billy Two Rivers, Mohawk Council of Kahnawake; Lawrence Courtoreille, Treaty 8 vicepresident; Woody Morrison, Haida Nations; and Aaron Grey Cloud, Vancouver local of the United Native Nations president.
Georges Erasmus, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations was also to attend, but had to cancel his appearance.