First Nations artifacts on the auction block

This just in from the “better late than never” file.

I was listening earlier this week to As It Happens on CBC Radio One, and heard some talkback messages concerning a story from last week about the auctioning of First Nations objects owned by Calgary’s Glenbow Museum. I am very interested in anthropological issues surrounding cultural property and heritage, having worked on a postdoctoral project at the Australian National University revolving around the repatriation of archival recordings of music back to their communities of origin. So I listened with interest to a talkback caller and an email submission. Both were responding to the original interview (on Sept. 28th) with Bert Crowfoot of the Aboriginal Multi-Media Society, and a follow-up interview (on Sept. 30th) with Jerry Conaty of the Glenbow Museum.

So, to proceed in chronological order:

At issue is a lot of 220 individual items, originally owned by the Glenbow Museum and being auctioned by Hodgins Art Auctions Ltd. The items include beaded mocassins, beaded belts, leggings, breastplates, cuffs, shorts, dresses, vests, gauntlets, necklaces, armbands, baskets, pouches, bags, boxes, snowshoes, paddles, masks, carvings, bows, quivers, arrows, blankets, saddles, dance shields, ornaments, tomahawks, drums, dolls, and dance ornaments. These items came from a wide variety of First Nations, mostly plains and plateau peoples, including the Dakota, Interior Salish, Coast Salish, Ojibwa, Nez Perce, Sioux, Crow, Cheyenne, Pawnee, Haida, and Winnebago, among others.

During the Sept. 28th episode of As It Happens, host Carol Off spoke with Bert Crowfoot, founder and CEO of the Aboriginal Multi-Media Society (AMMSA). According to their mission statement:

The Aboriginal Multi-Media Society is an independent Aboriginal communications organization committed to facilitating the exchange of information reflecting Aboriginal culture to a growing and diverse audience.

AMMSA is dedicated to providing objective, mature and balanced coverage of news, information and entertainment relevant to Aboriginal issues and peoples while maintaining profound respect for the values, principles and traditions of Aboriginal people.

During the interview, Mr. Crowfoot indicated that he had seen a newspaper advertisement for the auction and posted it to Facebook, where it has generated (to date) 48 comments, 34 “likes” and 19 “shares”. Mr. Crowfoot articulately raised a range of concerns about the auction, and questioned why the artifacts were being sold and whether First Nations groups had been given the opportunity to reclaim them before the auction. He was particularly concerned about an Ojibwa ceremonial pipe bag, considered to be a sacred object, and an artifact decorated with eagle feathers, the sale of which is illegal.

On Sept. 30th, As It Happens did a follow-up interview with Jerry Conaty, curator of the Indigenous Studies Collection at the Glenbow Museum. Mr. Conaty cited space concerns and the need to raise funds for other collections as motivating factors behind the sale. He stated that the Glenbow followed a de-accessioning protocol, which included making contact with First Nations museums and cultural centres in Alberta in an attempt to make contact with the traditional owners of the material, althugh he acknowledged that they will seek to improve that process. Mr. Conaty indicated that the provenance of the items was not easy to determine, as deposited collections are often vague with cultural and geographical details, and that he welcomed the opportunity to work with representatives of First Nations communities to help to positively identify other artifacts in their collections. He also indicated that the feathered artifact would be examined to determine if the feathers were in fact eagle feathers (and, if so, the sale would be rescinded), and that the pipe bag did not look to have been used in ceremonial contexts and therefore similar to pipe bags made for commercial sale. (As an aside, the questionable use of pipe bags forms part of a larger set of practices by Westerners appropriating non-Western culture. You may, for example, learn to make your own.)

The auction went ahead on Sept. 27th. All 220 items were sold, for a grand total of $86,575.00.

The entire tale exemplifies some of the vexed issues involved in the ownership, loss, appropriation, management, (lack of) repatriation, and sale of cultural property. In many similar instances around the world, indigenous peoples are disempowered in relation to their own cultural property, not just systematically, but structurally. Cultural heritage materials, both tangible and intangible, were removed from their places of origin – sometimes without permission, sometimes with permission but without the kind of informed consent that social scientists seek today. In other cases, such materials were collected with informed consent, but ending up in a museological or archival structure which rendered them difficult to access – we know (vaguely) where they are, but we don’t know how to access them. Even in the best-case scenario, in which indigenous communities are consulted about curatorial or archival practices, cultural heritage materials must often live off-site, away from their communities of origin (often with the blessing of those communities, whose members recognize the kinds of management practices, like climate-controlled storage, that museums and archives can provide). Only rarely are indigenous communities in the position to establish their own “keeping places” that enable the permanent repatriation of their heritage.

Mary Louise Pratt developed the notion of “contact zones” to help to describe “social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination—like colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out across the globe today (Pratt 1992:4). In Pratt’s usage,

“contact zone” is an attempt to invoke the spatial and temporal copresence of subjects previously separated by geographic and historical disjunctures, and whose trajectories now intersect. By using the term ‘contact,’ I aim to foreground the interactive, improvisational dimensions of colonial encounters so easily ignored or suppressed by diffusionist accounts of conquest and domination. A “contact” perspective emphasizes how subjects are constituted in and by their relations to each other. It treats the relations among colonizers and colonized… not in terms of separateness or apartheid, but in terms of copresence, interaction, interlocking understandings and practices, often within radically asymmetrical relations of power (ibid.:7).

A key concept related to the notion of the contact zone is “transculturation”, describing “how subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted to them by a dominant or metropolitan culture” (ibid.:6). Pratt notes that “[w]hile subjugated peoples cannot readily control what emanates from the dominant culture, they do determine to varying extents what they absorb into their own, and what they use it for” (ibid.). This seems like an apt description of the indigenous engagement with museum and archival collections today. For the most part, these collections were collected and created by non-indigenous scholars, missionaries, or officials, and so indigenous peoples are not in control of what exists in museums and archives. Through the unique position of the emergent category of “keeping places” or “indigenous knowledge centres,” however, they do develop control over how these materials are re-absorbed and used within their communities.

James Clifford has extended the idea of “contact zones” to museums to point to a movement away from the organizing structure of the collection toward “an ongoing historical, political, and moral relationship” (1997:192), in which museums are being called upon “to be accountable in a way that [goes] beyond mere preservation”(ibid.:193). A new dynamic is clearly at play, and the transcultural tensions inherent in “contact zones” can help us to understand that dynamic. Clifford notes that collections and the contact histories that they represent are caught in a dichotomous relationship between community “experience” and curatorial “authority,” and are subject to contingent and political processes of power, negotiation, and representation (ibid.:208). This contact work is made even more complex by the emergence of “tribal museums” that overlap with and diverge from conventional museum practices and necessitate “active collaboration and a sharing of authority” (ibid.:210).

In the case of the Glenbow Museum’s auctioning of First Nations cultural heritage materials, the perspective of museums as “contact zones” seems to have been overlooked. Cultural heritage materials are often considered to be inalienable property – their removal from a community (or even if they are given as a gift) does not sever the relation between the object and its owners. So, even if the artifacts are the property of the Crown (with the Glenbow as the Crown’s agents) in our Western legal sense, they are nevertheless the property of their indigenous owners in an ethical, moral, and cultural sense. If the idea of museums as “contact zones” is to be taken seriously (as I think it must), museological and curatorial management practices (like “de-accessioning collections” to “make space” for “core collections”) must enter into a dialogue with indigenous indigenous knowledge about the “management” of “cultural heritage”.

Now, this is not to paint the Glenbow Museum as the bad guys. Having worked extensively with archivists over the past 15 years of my own research career, I believe them to be conscientious, knowledgeable professionals, often with the best interests of indigenous peoples in mind. As Mr. Conaty’s interview on the CBC made clear, some efforts were made to make contact with relevant First Nations communities prior to the de-accessioning, even if those efforts are now recognized to have been ineffective. I believe that the problem is not one of intent, but rather of the incommensurability of knowledge-management systems. The epistemological presuppositions and day-to-day practices of museums are based on “collections” as entities to be “managed,” on notions of “provenance,” on the necessity of “documentation” and “preservation,” and a host of other ideas. Indigenous ideas concerning their “heritage” (itself an unavoidably Western term) may involve notions of inalienability, ritual use, sacredness, cosmology, and attachment to particular persons or groups. I believe that there is some evidence that these two sets of ideas and practices are, to some extent at least, incommensurable with one another.

What is required, then, is the development of a new style of management between museums and indigenous communities based not only on dialogue, but on co-curation and co-management. Museums like the Glenbow (but not only the Glenbow) must be willing not only to invite indigenous people to help them with “documenting” and “managing” collections, but actually to reconsider and extend the conceptions of what “documentation” and “management” are all about in the first place.

For those interested in the interviews, the CBC archives its “As It Happens” episodes for two years at this stage. So here are the links, which may break at some stage:



Clifford, James. 1997. Museums as Contact Zones. In Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Pratt, Mary Louise. 1992. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge.


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