Controversy over the indigenous relics that the Vatican exposes as “gifts” days after Pope Francis’ visit to Canada

The president of the Metis community, Cassidy Caron, speaks to the media in St. Peter’s Square after her meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, File)

The Vatican Museums are home to some of the world’s most magnificent works of art, from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel to ancient Egyptian antiquities to a pavilion filled with papal chariots. But one of the museum’s least-visited collections is becoming the most hotly contested ahead of Pope Francis’ trip to Canada.

The Vatican’s Anima Mundi Ethnological Museum, located near the food court and just before the main exit, houses tens of thousands of artifacts and art made by indigenous peoples from around the world, much of it sent to Rome by Catholic missionaries for display. 1925 in the Vatican gardens.

The Vatican says the feathered headdresses, carved walrus tusks, masks and embroidered animal skins were gifts to Pope Pius XI, who wanted to celebrate the global reach of the Church, its missionaries and the lives of indigenous peoples who they evangelized.

But Canada’s indigenous groups, who were shown some items from the collection when they traveled to the Vatican last spring to meet with Francis, question how some of the works were acquired and wonder what else it may have stored after decades of not being there. be exposed to the public.

Some say they want them back.

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A pair of moccasins he made in the traditional native Canadian Cree-Metif style of the late 19th century. The Vatican’s Anima Mundi Ethnological Museum houses tens of thousands of artifacts and works of art made by indigenous peoples from around the world. (Gregory Scofield via AP)
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A pair of shoes he made in the traditional native Canadian Cree-Metif style of the late 19th century. (Gregory Scofield via AP)

“These pieces that belong to us should come home,” said Cassidy Caron, president of the National Council of Metis, who led the Metis delegation that asked Francis to return the items.

The restitution of indigenous and colonial-era artifacts, a pressing debate for museums and national collections across Europe, is one of many agenda items awaiting Francis on his trip to Canada, which begins Sunday. .

The trip is primarily intended to allow the pope to apologize in person, on Canadian soil, for the abuses that indigenous people and their ancestors suffered at the hands of Catholic missionaries in notorious residential schools.

More than 150,000 native Canadian children were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century to the 1970s in an effort to insulate them from the influence of their homes and their culture. The goal was to Christianize them and assimilate them into mainstream society.

Official Canadian policy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries also aimed to suppress indigenous spiritual and cultural traditions in the home, including the 1885 Potlatch Ban that banned comprehensive First Nations ceremony.

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A pair of gauntlets he made in the traditional late 19th century Native Canadian Cree-Metif style. (Gregory Scofield via AP)

Government agents seized items used in the ceremony and other rituals, some of which ended up in museums in Canada, the United States and Europe, as well as in private collections.

It is possible that the indigenous peoples gave their works to the Catholic missionaries for the 1925 exhibition or that the missionaries bought them. But historians question whether the items could have been freely offered given the power imbalances at play in Catholic missions and the government’s policy of eliminating indigenous traditions, which the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission has called “cultural genocide.” .

“Because of the power structure of what was going on at the time, it would be very difficult for me to accept that there wasn’t some coercion in those communities to get these items.”said Michael Galban, a resident of Washoe and Mono Lake. Paiute, director and curator of the Seneca Art & Culture Center in upstate New York.

Gloria Bell, a fellow at the American Academy in Rome and an assistant professor in the department of art history and communication studies at McGill University, agreed.

“Using the term ‘gift’ just covers the whole story,” said Bell, who is of Métis descent and is finishing a book on the 1925 exhibition. “We really need to question the context of how these cultural artifacts got to the Vatican, and then also its relationship with the indigenous communities of today”.

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Gerald Antoine, center, NWT First Nations regional chief, is flanked by Natan Obed, president of the Tapiriit Kanatami Inuit delegation, left, and Cassidy Caron, president of the Metis community, as they meet with reporters in the Plaza Peter’s in the Vatican after his meeting with Pope Francis (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino, File)

Katsitsionni Fox, a Mohawk filmmaker who served as a spiritual adviser to the First Nations delegation in the spring, said she has seen items belonging to her people that need to be “rematried” or returned to their homeland.

“You can feel like it’s not where they belong and it’s not where they want to be,” he said of the wampum belts, war clubs and other items he documented on his phone camera.

Meanwhile, the Inuit delegation inquired about an Inuit kayak from the collection.

The Vatican Museums turned down repeated requests for interviews or comment.

Opening the renovated Anima Mundi gallery space in 2019 with artifacts from Oceania, as well as a temporary exhibit from Amazon, Francis said that the items were cared for “with the same passion reserved for Renaissance masterpieces or immortal Greek and Roman statues.”

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Two mittens he made in the traditional late 19th century Native Canadian Cree-Metif style. (Gregory Scofield via AP)

You might miss the Anima Mundi if you spend the day at the Vatican Museums. Official tours don’t include it, and the audio guide, which features descriptions of two dozen museums and galleries, completely ignores it. Private guides say they rarely take visitors there because there are no explanatory signs in the display cases or text panels on the walls.

Margo Neale, who helped curate the Vatican’s 2010 Aboriginal exhibit at Anima Mundi as director of the Center for Indigenous Knowledge at the National Museum of Australia, said it is unacceptable that today’s indigenous collections lack informative labels.

“They are not being given the respect they deserve by being named in some way,” said Neale, a member of the Kulin and Gumbaingirr nations. “They are beautifully displayed, but are culturally diminished by a lack of recognition of anything other than their ‘exotic otherness.'”

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Gerald Antoine, NWT First Nations Regional Chief, Natan Obed, President of the Tapiriit Kanatami Inuit Delegation, and Cassidy Caron, President of the Metis Community, walk in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican after their meeting with Pope Francis. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino, File)

In Victoria, British Columbia, Gregory Scofield has amassed a community collection of about 100 items of Metis beadwork, embroidery, and other crafts that he tracked down and acquired through online auctions and through travel and made available to scholars and artists. of Metis.

Scofield, a Metis poet and author of the forthcoming book “Our Grandmother’s Hands: Repatriating Metis Material Art,” said any discussion with the Vatican should focus on giving indigenous scholars full access to the collection and ultimately bringing items home.

“These pieces contain our stories,” he said. “These pieces contain our history. These pieces contain the energy of those ancestral grandmothers”.

(with information from AP)


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