Indigenous curators say the Vatican must hand over the artifacts

Gerald McMaster has always wondered what cultural mysteries and artifacts are kept in the Vatican’s collection of Indigenous artifacts.

The famous First Nations curator and artist says these artifacts are important to the way indigenous people see themselves and the world around them. However, he said, not many people have ever laid eyes on what’s in the vault.

“What is being hidden? Why is it being hidden?” McMaster weighed in in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.

“Why (should) the natives remain closed while the vault should be open to other non-native curators, other European curators.”

Indigenous delegates will meet Pope Francis at the Vatican in the last week of March. The visit includes a tour of the Anima Mundi Museum of Ethnology, which houses an unknown number of indigenous artifacts.

The Catholic Church says the purpose of the delegation is to discuss reconciliation and healing, but indigenous artists and curators say that cannot be achieved if important indigenous objects remain unaccounted for. see.

McMaster, from the Siksika Nation in Alberta, was unsuccessful in his attempt to view the entire collection, despite being a leading expert in the field.

He is the winner of the Governor General’s Award for Visual and Media Arts 2022, is research chair in Indigenous curatorial practice and director of the Center for Indigenous Visual Knowledge at the College of Arts and Sciences. Ontario Design in Toronto.

McMaster has more than 40 years of experience in the field of Indigenous art, visual arts, and aesthetics.

“I tried and tried, tried, tried to access the Vatican collection for my own work in a prestigious international exhibition in 2018,” McMaster said.

“I was completely disappointed when I left the Vatican. I couldn’t … connect with anyone, even using Italians who know everyone.”

The museum was renamed Anima Mundi, which means “soul of the world”, in 2019. At that time, the Pope pledged to put more objects on display, including his own. native.

The museum’s website says the artifacts are on rotation, as they are old and fragile and there are additional requirements for display.

McMaster says that keeping the puzzle pieces away from the people who made them is a denial of their history. He says that indigenous collections around the world are culturally sensitive and should be treated as such.

Many of the items were taken away after the Canadian government, passed the India Act 1876, outlawed cultural practices, including wearing traditional clothing, he said. Ceremonial items and other important objects were seized, then sold, donated to museums or destroyed.

Much of the Vatican’s current collection belongs to a former pope, Pius XI, who decided to hold a world exposition in 1925. A message was sent to missionaries across the globe to send items. More than 100,000 objects and works of art were on display.

The Vatican says parts of its collection are gifts to the popes and the Catholic Church.

Even if items are donated voluntarily, the way they are treated and displayed, McMaster said, must be done in consultation with Indigenous people.

The collection is known to include masks, wampum belts, pipes and rugs, among other items from indigenous communities in North America. Indigenous experts say they have no details on the items that have been identified or any idea of ​​how much remains unknown.

Audrey Dreaver, an artist, curator and lecturer at Canada’s First Nations University in Regina.

“It really impacts everything and the way we feel about ourselves.”

Dreaver, the nehiyiwak (Plains Cree), says that it is the same with taking cultural objects from and cutting the hair of indigenous children when they enter residential schools.

It was an intellectual and psychological colonization, she said. The objects themselves are admired, but natives are not considered skilled enough to view the artifacts or return them.

“They still tend to talk about us as if we couldn’t care less about our own history and culture.”

Dreaver says the reconciliation won’t be complete until the Vaticanis are honest and open about their Indigenous collection.

Artist Metis Christi Belcourt says the issue goes beyond giving art back to indigenous communities.

The Catholic church is also one of the largest non-governmental landowners in the world, which Belcourt says has given the institution power and wealth.

“Both the land and the artifacts must be returned to their rightful indigenous owners around the world.”

This Canadian Press report was first published on March 20, 2022.

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