I recently had the good fortune to be invited to the Cree Cultural Coordinators’ meeting in Val d’Or on February 18-20th. The part of the meeting that I was interested in was the repatriation of Cree artifacts.
This would be bringing them back to a Cree museum or facility where they could be cared for by the people whose ancestors made them. The meeting was different from most I had attended before and not just because the majority of spoken language of the meeting was in Cree. It was because it included Elders as an essential part. As Robbie Dick put it during the discussion on the bringing home of Cree artifacts, “The Elders should be in charge of the coordinators. It shouldn’t be the so-called experts. It should be the other way around.”
Robbie Matthew, one of the Elders attending, said much the same, adding: “We need them back but we are not ready to receive them with the respect and honour they deserve.” He went on to praise one of the presenters, an anthropologist from Trent University. She has traveled all over the world documenting and photographing Cree artifacts that Hudson Day Co. traders and other explorers brought back with them. One of the most interesting pieces of information was the fact that Cree women wore hoods with amazingly beautiful designs on them. Cree men wore leggings with intricate and beautiful designs also. This was in addition to the gloves, bags and clothing that we saw during her slide show and presentation. When it was over Robbie Matthew had tears in his eyes as he honoured and thanked her. He told her that the work reminded him of his grandmother.
He went on to say that Crees have shared always and that our past history was never a written one but was oral and visual. That just looking at the work by our ancestors, it was obvious great patience was taken. That the work tells of Cree culture, the way of life back then and we should share this with others. Sharing was one of the gifts of the Creator and we need the works back but should always be willing to share them. As he was speaking tears came to the eyes of this anthropologist.
Another Elder from Chisasibi who was over 100 years old remembered the hoods still being used. Other Elders liked the show and thanked the anthropologist for it. Everyone felt that all Crees should have the chance to see the slide show to understand what is out there and to see our past alive once again.
One of the people who has been involved with the museum project is Kenny Mianscum, coordinator for Anischaaukaamikw. When the meeting was over I had a chance to interview Kenny and record some of his thoughts.
The Nation: One of the topics covered was repatriation, which falls under your mandate to start a Cree museum. Did you feel encouraged by the meeting?
Kenny: Actually, I did. It really encouraged me because in the near future that’s one of the things we’ll be attempting to do, but it’s a long process. That will be something we’ll have to take on a year-to-year basis probably at the beginning because as everyone is aware we don’t have a Cultural Institute in which we could house these artifacts that could be repatriated in the very near future. I don’t know how long it will take us to do it but it is something we are already discussing.
I know one of the basic things is that you have to look for money to get the building. What kind of money are we talking to get a proper facility?
We’re talking millions. The construction is approximately $8.4 million. On top of that we are looking for an endowment of $5 million. So you’re looking at $13.4-million project. It can be done. I believe it can be done but it really requires participation of the leaders to start promoting the Cultural Institute. To begin introducing it in their meetings, in their gatherings and what-not.
So those are the things we need to do. It is a large project and it is something I believe the Crees can do and can achieve it. Because of their success in the past and they haven’t failed yet up to today, so it is something I see that will be Cree-owned, controlled, planned and managed from the start. It will also be Cree-constructed.
Are we looking at one main center and then branches in each community? I know this has been a concern of some leaders that artifacts found near their communities be displayed in those communities?
Yes, this is a regional institute and we foresee that in the future the Cree communities will discuss their own concept of an institute for their artifacts for the people and visitors. But this one is a regional project.
Have you considered a traveling show of Cree artifacts to different schools and different places?
Well, I think in the very near future we’ll be doing that, but above and beyond that we’ll be doing some southern regions. When we discussed things and ideas of getting the money and things like that, it was one of the ideas of the working group and the other members who have been involved in the process.
I noticed some of the Elders were saying that before we bring home some of these artifacts to the Cree territory from all over the world, we have to understand what we are bringing back.
It is true we have to understand that and respect that also because we do not know the story behind each artifact. We need to understand that in order to promote it accurately. In order for us to do the right thing for that specific artifact, yes it is true that we have to respect it. It’s going to take a while.
One of the things I found interesting that I didn’t know was the hoods that Cree women wore and some of the older women remember it. But these were the Elders who were at that meeting. Now isn’t there a danger if we wait too long we won’t have anyone left who would have some memory of what these did mean or what people wore in those days?
It is getting to a point where we are questioning how far our culture has changed, how much of it has changed. We are in the process of encouraging the old traditional ways of making materials and equipment that we used back then. It is true that the art or embroidery of certain items is gone. It is no longer practiced today. Those are the things we feel if we can get hold of one item such as the hood and give it to an individual, then we could see if it could still be made today.
But there are other things I see are missing in our culture right now due to being able to see what is in the museums through photos and videos. These are things we need to promote today because it is true if we don’t start bringing back the old way of making traditional things, we will definitely lose it. We’re going towards modernization in a lot of things we build, construct, embroider, sew, mend and those sort of things and the old way of doing things is no longer the art you see on certain artifacts. It’s gone.
Now one of the shows that was very impressive was the anthropologist from Trent University. It was amazing to find someone who has actually gone around, found and recorded where the Cree artifacts are and where they come from. She actually catalogues the Cree artifacts around the world. Will you be arranging for her to go around the communities to show what we lost and perhaps people could come forward with memories?
We are planning to do something with her this summer if possible. We’re trying to get her to come up and do her slide presentation to all the Cree communities. That might motivate and encourage the Elders. It might encourage the youth to see the importance of keeping their culture, their artifacts, the way it used to be. We are in the process of doing something for her to come this summer.
One of the things I’ve noticed in the communities is the adopting of regalia from western tribes. It seems to be the most popular regalia around. Perhaps it would be nice to see Cree regalia. A traditional Cree look.
Yes, it would be very nice because like I said we are starting to adopt other cultural ideas into ours and we expect it to be our culture. Which is not. Our culture was simple. We live with the land, and I don’t think when we gathered we dressed up. I think we gathered as a traditional people with what was available to us at that time. That’s what we wore. As far as I know we didn’t wear feathers or colourful costumes. We wore simple things that we could use.
Well, I don’t know about that, some of those hoods looked pretty colorful to me?
It was very. Yeah, I agree with that. The beadwork, the embroidery and the amount of hours someone would have spent on that. That is something that is very beautiful. It was very nice.