Indigenous groups want artifacts back from Vatican


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

Located near the food court and just in front of the main exit, the Anima Mundi Ethnological Museum of the Vatican houses tens of thousands of artifacts and art made by indigenous people around the world, much of which was sent to Rome by Catholic missionaries for an exhibition in 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 worldwide reach of the church, its missionaries and the lives of the indigenous people they evangelized.

But indigenous groups in Canada, who were shown a few items from the collection when they traveled to the Vatican last spring to meet Francis, wonder how some of the works were actually acquired, and wonder what else is in the collection. storage is on public display after decades of non-existence.

Some say they want them back.

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

Restitution of indigenous and colonial artifacts, an urgent debate for museums and national collections across Europe, is one of the many items on the agenda for Francis on his trip to Canada, which begins Sunday.

The trip is primarily intended to enable the Pope to apologize personally on Canadian soil for the abuses suffered by indigenous peoples and their ancestors at the hands of Catholic missionaries in infamous residential schools.

More than 150,000 Native children in Canada were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 1800s to the 1970s in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes and culture. The aim 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 at home, including the 1885 Potlatch Ban that banned the entire First Nations ceremony.

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

It is possible that indigenous people gave their handicrafts to Catholic missionaries for the 1925 expo or that the missionaries bought it. But historians doubt the items could be freely offered given the power imbalance that plays a role 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 was no compulsion in those communities to get these objects,” said Michael Galban, a Washoe and Mono Lake Paiute , director and curator of the Seneca Art & Culture Center in New York State.

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

“The use of the term ‘gift’ just covers all of history,” says Bell, who is from Metis and is in the process of writing a book on the 1925 expo. “We really have to question the context of how these cultural assets have ended up in the Vatican, and so has their relationship with the indigenous communities of today.”

Katsitsionni Fox, a Mohawk filmmaker who served as a spiritual advisor to the First Nations delegation in the spring, said she saw items that belong to her people and need to be “remarried” or returned to the motherland.

“You feel that’s not where they belong and that’s not where they want to be,” she said of the wampum belts, war clubs and other items she documented with her phone camera.

The Inuit delegation, meanwhile, inquired about an Inuit kayak in the collection.

The Vatican Museums have rejected repeated requests for an interview or comment.

Francis said the items were cared for “with the same passion reserved for the masterpieces of the Renaissance or the immortal Greek and Roman statues. ”

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

Margo Neale, who, as head of the Center for Indigenous Knowledges at the Australian National Museum, helped put together the Vatican’s 2010 Indigenous exhibit in the Anima Mundi, said it’s unacceptable that Indigenous collections don’t have informational labels today.

“They don’t get the respect they deserve by being called in any way,” said Neale, a member of the Kulin and Gumbaingirr countries. “They are beautifully rendered, but are culturally diminished by the lack of recognition of anything other than their ‘exotic otherness’.”

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

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 native scholars full access to the collection and, ultimately, , taking items home.

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


Associated Press religious coverage is supported by the AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Leave a Comment