Repatriating Cultural Belongings and Decolonizing Museums

Practice Point

Repatriating Cultural Belongings and Decolonizing Museums

May 2, 2024

INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM DAY ON MAY 18 IS A GOOD TIME TO FOCUS ON REPATRIATING ancestral human remains and burial items to Indigenous communities.

Seeking to address past and present harms, the BC Museums Association launched a Repatriation Call to Action on International Museum Day in 2021. The following year, the BCMA added public education to the call and “provided hand-selected resources to help organizations educate the public and their own staff.”

See BCMA articles on decolonizing museum policies and practices here.

See resources to support museums in their decolonizing efforts from the Canadian Museums Association here.

The CMA is mentioned in Calls to Action #67 and #68 from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada:

    1. We call upon the federal government to provide full funding to the Canadian Museums Association to undertake, from collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, a national review of museum policies and best practices to determine the level of compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to make recommendations.
    1. We call upon the federal government, in collaboration with Aboriginal Peoples, and the Canadian Museums Association to mark the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation in 2017 by establishing a dedicated national funding program for commemoration projects on the theme of reconciliation.

In Moved to Action: Activating UNDRIP in Canadian Museums (2022), the CMA wrote:

Canada does not currently have any federal legislation or federally-backed strategies for repatriation. In 2019, Bill C-391 Indigenous Human Remains and Cultural Property Repatriation Act [available here] received unanimous support in the House of Commons but failed to make it through Senate processes before the completion of parliamentary proceedings for the year. The proposed bill secured the development of a “national strategy for the repatriation of Indigenous human remains and cultural property” in cooperation with Indigenous Peoples across Canada. Some concerns with C-391 included the lack of funding attached to the process, although the hope was that these details, including funding processes, binding legal implications, and nationally-recognized jurisdiction for Indigenous communities in these matters, would be put forth as part of the resulting national strategy. Although repatriation itself as it relates to cultural heritage, falls under provincial jurisdiction, we heard in our consultations that the desire was to see federally-funded programs for repatriation with strict and binding guidelines to bolster the capacity and authority of Indigenous communities in these initiatives.

Click here to view and download the CMA’s 11” x 17” poster describing standards for implementing the UNDRIP and supporting Indigenous self-determination in museums.

The 2019 Indigenous Repatriation Handbook, prepared by the Royal BC Museum and the Haida Gwaii Museum at Kay Llnagaay, is available for purchase or for reading online for free.

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The logo for the Repatriation Call to Action was created by Sarah Jim, an emerging artist of mixed ancestry. Sarah is a member of the W̱SÁNEĆ nation from the Tseycum village. She holds a BFA from UVIC and conducts environmental restoration on her ancestral territory. Creating place-based artwork of her homelands and waters allows her to educate others about the importance of native plant food systems and coastal medicines in relation to the ecosystem and W̱SÁNEĆ culture.

Sarah explains the elements used in the logo; “The moon and stars are ubiquitous entities that hold so much meaning for many. A moon in transition symbolizes the act of repatriation; communities are becoming whole again by receiving what truly belongs to them. The surrounding plants represent good medicine for this phase in life and stars are meant to give good wishes and represent ancestors.”

The logo will be made available to institutions who sign on to the Repatriation Call to Action as a window-cling decal to illustrate their support.

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We acknowledge that the land on which we work is the unceded territory of the Coast Salish peoples, including the territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.