Manitoba History: Gerald T. Conaty, ed. We Are Coming Home: Repatriation and the Restoration of Blackfoot Cultural Confidence

by Cara Krmpotich,
University of Toronto

Number 81, Summer 2016

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Gerald T. Conaty, ed. We Are Coming Home: Repatriation and the Restoration of Blackfoot Cultural Confidence. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2015, 299 pages. ISBN 978-1-7719-9017-2, $34.95, (paperback), downloadable ebook, AUP website

Gerry Conaty has had a significant presence in the worlds of Canadian museology and museum anthropology. Although we met only once, I frequently use his work from the Royal Saskatchewan Museum and the Glenbow Museum to demonstrate important precedents in my own teaching and research. Conaty worked on projects with long-lasting influence for museums and for Indigenous communities. His death was felt across museum communities, and the publication of We Are Coming Home helped to fill the void that he left. Reviewing the posthumous work of Conaty, then, is not an easy task, and perhaps its most challenging characteristic is its function as a kind of memorial or legacy piece. In this book about the restoration of Blackfoot cultural confidence, the first two sections, by Robert Janes and Gerry Conaty, are largely dedicated to Conaty’s legacy and the seemingly unmatchable achievements of the Glenbow Museum in repatriation and community relationships. Blackfoot readers may look without success for a similar recognition of the legacy of two of their own recently deceased elders— Frank Weasel Head (a contributor to the book) and Narcisse Blood. Publication schedules likely did not allow for such an inclusion, but the loss of Weasel Head and Blood hangs over these first two chapters.

Museum readers progressing through the initial “Prologue” and “Beginnings” chapters may feel chastised, or that they are the choir being preached to. There is a lack of engagement with the robust repatriation literature available to museum studies and Indigenous studies scholars, including sources that document the ways repatriation is linked to cultural confidence and regeneration. [1] As for the body of the book itself, the first two chapters, written by Conaty, provide background on museum and First Nation relations in Canada as well as Blackfoot cultural change as a result of sustained contact with Euro-Canadians and EuroAmericans. There is much to commend these chapters. Conaty acknowledges important early shifts in museum practice that are rarely discussed in the literature (Katherine Pettipas’ efforts at Manitoba Museum, for example) and the enduring damage and misconceptions that arose from inadequate translations of terms of ownership between Blackfoot and English. Information to help readers understand the similarities and differences between age-grade societies across the four Blackfoot nations provides nuance, and signals the complexity of society life for Blackfoot. I would have benefited from a parallel explanation of the nature of bundles—the repatriated items at the heart of the book—as the range of what these can be exceeded my basic understanding of Blackfoot cultural practices.

Chapters 3 through 7 are authored by individuals from the three Blackfoot nations within Canada who were involved with the repatriation efforts since the beginning. Read together, the chapters by Allan Pard, Jerry Potts, Frank Weasel Head, Herman Yellow Old Woman and Chris McHugh provide insight into how decisions and consensus are built (or at least managed) within each Blackfoot community and, more broadly, within the Blackfoot Confederacy. Contemporary Blackfoot Christian attitudes toward ceremonies as well as contemporary ceremonialist attitudes toward Christianity are raised by multiple contributors and illuminate the kinds of discussions that happen internally within communities as part of repatriation processes. Having multiple Blackfoot authors prevents a singular Indigenous account of the process and opens up opportunities to learn how communities grapple with intense cultural change.

Foreshadowing the penultimate chapter in which Janes explores how individual leaders operate within (or against) institutions, the chapters by Blackfoot contributors also expand the cast of characters essential to the Blackfoot story of repatriation and cultural rebuilding. Chris McHugh’s and Jerry Potts’ chapters trace the influence of the “Old Ladies” in the process—a much needed inclusion of women within this history; women are otherwise startlingly absent as authors. Readers will also come to see how favourable decisions in one community are not necessarily supported within another. Readers will also better understand what kinds of cultural confidence Blackfoot repatriators are seeking and why. Frank Weasel Head recounts how American museums wanted to send ancestral remains home with Blackfoot alongside bundles, however, Blackfoot religious protocols prohibit contact with human remains; Weasel Head is therefore looking for museums to take a more proactive and physical role in bringing the bodies to Blackfoot lands. McHugh closes his chapter with the recognition that getting the bundles back is a part of the restoration, but that his generation now needs to continue transferring bundles and keep their ceremonies and societies active.

Allan Pard’s chapter similarly emphasizes that the most important thing “is not the repatriation itself, but the use” (p. 133). Being able to perform ceremonies was essential in getting the bundles returned, but continuing to perform the ceremonies is essential in the bundles doing their work and people being active in, and proud of, Blackfoot ways. A significant asset of the book is that it frames repatriation as a beginning, not an end. The Blackfoot’s capacity to work through difference—whether within their own communities, with various museums, or with government agencies—as laid out in the book will be helpful for the current and next generation of museum professionals, and the current and next generation of Indigenous repatriators.

John Ives has the unenviable position of writing about the provincial museum’s (currently the Royal Alberta Museum [RAM]) participation in the repatriation process. The museum is rarely characterized in a positive light across the volume. Still, Ives’ chapter provides a helpful perspective on the challenges of creating a law (namely, Alberta’s First Nations Sacred Ceremonial Objects Repatriation Act [FNSCORA]) that will endure, be understood accurately, and achieve its purpose. While there is plenty of evidence provided to indicate why the Blackfoot and RAM relationship has, at various times, been tense, the book leaves unspoken RAM’s commitment to First Nations from across the province and notably those signatories to Treaty Six, upon whose territory RAM sits. Indeed, museum readers whose collections are culturally wide-ranging may find the overt celebration of Glenbow based on its achievements with the Blackfoot alone to mask important dimensions and challenges of museum work. UK museums receive much of Conaty and Janes’ fire at the outset; they are lumped together as universalist and retentionist, despite examples of UK museums attempting to create relationships through repatriation and collections access. On the one hand, Conaty and Janes each discuss how institutional and individual characteristics play an important role in repatriation processes. On the other hand, neither take particular care to consider institutional contexts beyond Glenbow and RAM, or national contexts within the UK.

The final two chapters are from Janes and Conaty, though they take a much softer tone than the first two. Oddly, projects criticized in the introductory sections as neo-colonial sharing (full disclosure: one of my own projects is characterized as such, despite it leading to a successful repatriation) are looked upon with more optimism in the concluding chapters. The Blackfoot Shirts project, for example, is recognized for its capacity to increase Blackfoot peoples’ knowledge of what is in collections overseas, and the sharing of information is identified as a crucial step in launching successful repatriation requests. Janes even writes in his epilogue that “Repatriation has been profoundly important, but it is also only one way of developing authentic relationships with First Nations peoples” (p. 260). There is patience and diversity in Janes’ final chapter not present in his first.

Conaty’s final chapter strings together wide-ranging ideas about bureaucracy, law, globalization and technology. Unfortunately, it does so without any firm research into how Indigenous communities are adopting and adapting all of these for their own purposes, nor does it heed powerful arguments to stop identifying Indigenous uses of modern technologies as acts of “hybrid” or not fullyIndigenous cultural production. [2] Whereas FNSCORA is trumpeted throughout the book, in Conaty’s final chapter he questions whether laws and policies—“the products of dominant society”—can fully respect Indigenous protocols. He sees technology and globalization as a threat to Blackfoot cultural continuity, which sits awkwardly at the end of a book that otherwise convincingly conveys Blackfoot cultural adaptation and survival.

There are two pivotal pieces of advice recalled within Herman Yellow Old Woman’s chapter that should resonate with all readers involved in repatriation processes, whether in museums and/or in communities. First, “You might hurt yourself if you’re just going to talk about it and never do it” (p. 189), and second, “it’s going to have to be the young people of this nation that’s going to bring it up. … it’s your responsibility” (p. 203). At the book’s core, this is what Conaty and Janes seem to be asking their museum readers to do. There are two story lines at work then: the restoration of Blackfoot cultural confidence, and an encouragement for museums to develop a cultural confidence that includes repatriation.


1. See, for instance the following: Edward Halealoha Ayau and Ty Kawika Tengan, “Ka Huaka ‘i O Na ‘Oiwi: the Journey Home,” in The Dead and their Possessions: Repatriation in Principle, Policy and Practice, ed. Cressida Fforde et al. London and New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 171–189. Lucille Bell and Vince Collison, “The Repatriation of Our Ancestors and the Rebirth of Ourselves,” in Raven Travelling: Two Centuries of Haida Art, ed. Daina Augaitis et al. Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery and Douglas & McIntyre, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006, pp. 140–145. Jennifer Kramer, “Figurative Repatriation: First Nations Artist-Warriors Recover, Reclaim and Return Cultural Property through Self-Definition,” Journal of Material Culture, vol. 9 no. 2 (2004), pp. 161–182. Cara Krmpotich, “Remembering and Repatriation: the production of kinship, memory and respect,” Journal of Material Culture, vol. 15, no. 2 (2010), pp. 157–179. Moira Simpson, “Museums and Restorative Justice: heritage, repatriation and cultural education,” Museum International vol. 61, no. 1–2 (2009), pp. 121–129. Paul Turnbull and Michael Pickering, eds, The Long Way Home: The Meanings and Values of Repatriation, New York: Berghahn Books, 2010.

2. Aaron Glass, “Crests on Cotton: ‘Souvenir’ T-Shirts and the Materiality of Remembrance Among the Kwakwaka’wakw of British Columbia,” Museum Anthropology, vol. 31, no.1 (2008), pp. 1–18.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 15 September 2020