The Medicine Hat Reburial Projects Team held a panel on Wednesday which gave an opportunity to show what they were about and for Elders, Knowledge Keepers and members of the local Indigenous and non-Indigenous community to tell their stories regarding Indigenous history. Attendants were given the chance to hear about burial discoveries and efforts to find proper final resting places.
The event began with a presentation led by Dr. Andrew Bear Robe of the Siksika Nation (accompanied by Elders Herman Yellow Old Woman and Michelle Crowchief) about the importance of restoring cultural artifacts back into the hands of the peoples of where those item originated from. A buffalo headdress, a rattle and an arrow were presented that were just repatriated from Miywasin Friendship Centre’s Collection and Bear Robe mentioned a chief’s buckskin outfit that had been shipped from England after years of negotiations.
It was also mentioned that some artifacts were unearthed from burial sites and ended up in private and public collections. “I think that idea of keeping grave goods in private hands is something that’s going to go the way of the past, which is great news,” said Jenni Barrientos, assistant archivist at the Esplanade Arts & Heritage Centre. “I think they belong back to the community where they should be.”
“A lot of (cultural artifacts) were confiscated as a result of the federal government trying to close down our ceremonies,” cites Dr. Bear Robe. “A lot of the pipe bags were destroyed by the federal government as way of preventing us from practising our cultural ceremonies.”
Elder Andrew spoke of the policies that occurred under the government of prime minister John A MacDonald, who continues to remain a contentious figure in the history of Indigenous affairs. He spoke of how the communities were moved into reserves so other lands could be developed for European settlement and resource development.
It will be through efforts of speaking with keepers of both private and public collection that many of these cultural items will be repatriated back to their cultural communities of origin.
“I see the museum community moving in a very positive way when it comes to return of cultural property,” says Tom Hunter, collections assistant at the University of Alberta Museums. “It’s quite a change since I started.”
The presentation transitioned to a luncheon where the Elders were served first. This was followed by a presentation of slides, of which was notably the story of how the city has worked with the project to get information on burials that were unearthed in 1967. This partnership was done to obtain documentation that was used to determine where the burials were and what items were found.
After the event Barrientos explained there has been a tendency to look at such discoveries with an interest more akin to paleontology as opposed to a more personal and deeper connection of ancestry.
“We need to look at things as not just bones or items but as people,” said Barrientos.
Attendees were given the chance to share their stories and if they so desired to be recorded so they can be referred to and heard in years to come.
“Oral histories are being valued more and we’re understanding that those stories can actually have so much historical value as well as emotional or cultural value,” expresses Barrientos in regards to how Indigenous storytelling has had a history being devalued or dismissed as fantasy due to not being recorded on parchments, tablets or grand texts.
“I think we’re moving forward to that inclusion and moving away from that sense of otherness,” says Barrientos.
The idea of inclusion was made clear by the presentations, including working with non-Indigenous people such as newcomers and people who have been here for generations.
It’s all moving forward in a positive way,” said Jeannette Hansen, executive director of the Miyawasin Friendship Centre in regards to Medicine Hat being a gathering place for Indigenous peoples and also for newcomers.
“We’re righting wrongs of the past and moving forward in a positive way.”
“When you have the non-Indigenous community attend events like this and see what and how we try to do to things, that they may change their attitude,” said Hunter.
“We can see that we have a shared history, it’s not two separate histories, it’s not that Indigenous people have a separate history from the white settler history, we were there together,” said Barrientos.
The promotion of languages and oral traditions is being preserved through the easily accessible technologies.
“Oral tradition is part of our culture and that’s how we learn and connect,” said Hansen on the importance of recovering the languages.
“We want to live our culture, it’s just who we are.”
The project was made possible through a group of sponsors and partners including the Miywasin Friendship Centre, University of Alberta, City of Medicine Hat, Canadian Heritage and National Indian Brotherhood (NIB) Trust Fund.
There will be events held on Sept. 21 and Oct. 18.
Emphasis was put on the idea that Truth and Reconciliation will be an ongoing mission without an end.
“We’ve come a long way but we have a long way to go,” says Barrientos.
By FERNANDO MORENO-PRADO, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Aug 03, 2023