Curating colonialism

Indigenous people want museums to heed TRC’s calls to action

Cultural institutions have an important role to play in Canada’s reconciliation process
Photo: Viv Lynch

Jay Jones’s mother tracked down her brother’s death certificate in the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre archives in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

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“There was no reason for his death, they just said he expired, that was it,” said Jones, who is president of the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association, which helps run the archives at Algoma University.

Jones’s uncle fell after escaping from the Shingwauk Residential School. He returned to seek help, but was not taken to the hospital. Instead, the school’s nurses left him, without treatment, in the infirmary.

“They knew he was dying, so they found my mother’s older brother, Leonard, and made him watch his brother die. Death was, essentially, his punishment for being [Indigenous],” Jones said.

It took decades for Leonard to open up to the family about his brother’s death. Jones recalled that Leonard drove up to Ontario from his home in Colorado on more than one occasion just to stand outside and look at the old school, which closed in 1970.

Shingwauk Hall was erected in 1935 to house a residential training school established in 1873 by the Reverend Edward F. Wilson.
Wikimedia Commons

Then one year, at the annual gathering of the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association, where school survivors and community members congregate to engage with past and present issues affecting Indigenous communities, Leonard walked up to the registration table where Jones and his sisters were welcoming participants.

“Let the healing begin!” he announced in a playful voice.

That year was the first time anyone in the family or community had heard Leonard tell his story.

Archives crucial to healing process

Since piecing together the story of his uncle’s death, Jones and his mother have travelled to schools across Canada and taken part in two Truth and Reconciliation Commission education days to talk about intergenerational trauma and the ongoing effects of the residential school system on Indigenous communities.

"So much Indigenous content is held by colonial institutions"

“The archives just came about as [the survivors] started collecting stuff. Information, pictures, documents, birth certificates, newspaper clippings, all those kinds of things,” Jones said. “Once they started collecting them, they figured they needed a place to store them.”

The Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre was born.

Next to the archives room, Jones explained, the centre houses a classroom-style collection of artifacts and historical information. “That room always, always has people in it, doesn’t matter what time of day it is.”

The archives and collections draw visitors from across the country. “People look at the pictures, looking for somebody they know, looking for their brother or their sister or looking for themselves. In some cases, it’s the first time they’ve seen these things,” said Jones.

Visitors can attend educational workshops, have complete access to the archives, and often ask for photocopies of the images and documents they find.

Jones said that learning about and reconnecting with family history through the centre’s archives is crucial to the healing process for intergenerational survivors and, ultimately, the reconciliation process for the broader population.

Krista McCracken, archives supervisor, described the centre’s relationship with the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association as “unique.”

The association governs the centre, advises the archival staff and university, and is “key in how the centre itself has developed guidelines around how we care for materials in our collection, how we display them, how we create educational programming,” McCracken said.

The association is “adamant” about maintaining its control of the archives, according to Jones, which is crucial if the centre is to maintain its mandate of “sharing, healing, and learning.”

“I don’t want this to fade away, and these archives are an important, important piece of our history.”

Archives have role in truth and reconciliation

More than a year has passed since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its 94 calls to action, four of which directly target museums and archives. The document urges all levels of government to collaborate on policy changes and programming in order to“redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation.”

TRC Chair Murray Sinclair during opening keynote of the Shingwauk 2015 Gathering. Photograph taken during is address to survivors.
Wikimedia Commons

“So much Indigenous content is held by colonial institutions, so any exhibition of that material is quite often interpreted by a settler, which has definite implications for how the material is presented,” said McCracken.

The calls to action urge the federal government to provide funding to fuel a national review of museum policies and best practices and to evaluate Library and Archives Canada’s and the Canadian Museums Association’s level of compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The archives-specific clauses call upon Library and Archives Canada to ensure all holdings related to residential schools are publicly accessible and to commit more resources to education and programming about the residential school system.

While McCracken noted that “specific institutions and specific curators have realized they have a responsibility to respond to the calls of action and have started thinking about the personal and institutional practices,” Métis-Cree scholar Jesse Thistle argued that many institutions are lagging far behind.

“Before reconciliation is truth,” Thistle said, “and that’s not just truth in some commission, it’s truth in everyday life and in our public history, in the way we teach in our classrooms.”

Canadians ‘deserve a more nuanced version of history’

For Thistle, museums like the Royal Ontario Museum must radically rethink their representation of Indigenous histories and cultures before they can claim to have even begun the reconciliation process.

ROM’s First Peoples exhibit tends to portray Indigenous communities as ahistorical

Thistle said that through the use of black and white photography and failure to engage meaningfully with contemporary Indigenous culture, the ROM’s First Peoples exhibit tends to portray Indigenous communities as ahistorical, which not only does injustice to communities today, but also “skews perceptions for general Canadians.”

The ROM, like most mainstream institutions, largely fails to acknowledge the ongoing colonial violence inherent to the Indian Act, pass system, and residential school system, said Thistle.

“Ultimately, their exhibits dehumanize us,” Thistle stated.

Kenneth Lister, assistant curator of anthropology at the museum and curatorial coordinator for the First Peoples exhibit, acknowledged that the museum has not yet made curatorial or archival changes based on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations.

While Lister said the museum does not hold any collections relating to residential schools, he suggested that the curators could collect objects with “Native advisers” and put together an exhibit about residential schools.

For Thistle, however, this is precisely the opposite of what the calls to action imply for institutions such as the ROM.

“How can institutions decolonize? First, they have to enter into real repatriation of their collections,” Thistle emphasized.

The ROM’s repatriation process begins when Indigenous communities submit formal written requests to the museum. “Relationships that come out of repatriation process last long into the future,” said Lister, but the process is complex and requires diligent consultation with communities.

But Thistle argued that because collections held at institutions such as the ROM were amassed in large part during “the age of salvaging anthropology” from the late 19th to the early 20th century, institutions have a responsibility to proactively approach communities about repatriation.

According to McCracken, museums and archives have a responsibility to educate visitors about the provenance of their collections.

“How did the ROM come to get all of that beadwork that it has, or all that historical material that was created in communities. What is the provenance of that material itself?” she asked.

To not explain “does a disservice to Indigenous communities as well as Canadians more broadly, who kind of deserve a more nuanced version of history that talks about ongoing relationships between settlers and Indigenous people in Canada.”

The warrior’s sword

For museum studies scholar Naomi Recollet, Anishinaabe-kwe from Wiikwemkoong unceded territory, increased community engagement with museum collections is crucial to the reconciliation process.

“Objects in museums are vessels or containers of memories, of my ancestors from a long time ago,” Recollet explained. Although museum collections are “disconnected or separated from the community, the memories are still there.”

Reconnecting with her community’s objects is “an emotional experience” that Recollet said is not generally afforded by the inaccessibility of most collections, but is central to the healing and reconciliation process.

Three years ago, her community’s chief realized that a sword belonging to one of their warriors from the War of 1812 was housed at the War Museum in Ottawa. British troops had awarded Mookomaanish with a silver-mounted sword for his bravery in the war. The sword was passed down through his family until the 1940s, when “the sword just vanished, and no one knows what happened to it,” Recollet explained.

“The family thinks it was either taken from them or was sold, but in either case it ended up at the War Museum,” a familiar trajectory for many items of Indigenous historical significance, Recollet said.

In collaboration with the War Museum, Recollet and other community members arranged for Mookomaanish’s sword to visit their community for a single day in September 2012.

Two museum representatives participated in the events, and Mookomaanish’s sword was brought to the community’s three schools. At the end of the day, the community created a pop-up museum and organized a gathering to celebrate the sword and its role in their history.

“It was phenomenal, seeing all these kids get so involved with their history, the history of our community, and realizing how important our people are,” Recollet said.

Beyond superficial community engagement

Both Recollet and Thistle said that educational programming and community engagement with collections is vital to the reconciliation process for museums and archives, but that engagement needs to be spearheaded by Indigenous communities, “not academics,” as Thistle put it.

But Recollet noted that much of the community engagement organized by museums is superficial.

Moving forward, museums that are serious about the reconciliation process need to hire Indigenous curators

The ROM’s First Peoples exhibit was curated in collaboration with six “Native advisers,” which Recollet said is a step in the right direction, but a largely “tokenistic way of signalling that the ROM involves communities.”

Moving forward, museums that are serious about the reconciliation process need to hire Indigenous curators and give Indigenous communities control and ownership of their collections, both Recollet and Thistle argued.

But that is a long-term goal, according to Recollet, and will depend on more government funding for Indigenous children and cultural programming.

“When I was in high school attending these career sessions, it was always about nursing, about teaching, and policing. And I was like, ‘okay I don’t fit anywhere,’” she said.

Encouraging children from Indigenous communities to become curators will depend on the level of government commitment to the calls to action laid out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which, Recollet argued, are fundamentally “interconnected.”

For the Trudeau government, that will require resource commitments to child welfare on reserves and the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Recollet said that Canadian institutions have a “long, long” way to go, but she will continue to facilitate community engagement with collections and archives.

“I found my calling I think, with that sword.”

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