Anna Orton Hatzis, James Gallery Andrew W. Mellon Global Art Fellow and Travis Wysote, Indigenous Scholar, Concordia University

This project will create a centralized database of Indigenous objects (art, artefacts, and material culture) that are housed in museum collections and cultural institutions in the province of Quebec. This database will be freely accessible on a public facing website and would allow the public to easily access the records of Indigenous material culture in the province’s collections. By making the records of these objects easily accessible online, on a single platform, this database would help to 1) increase academic scholarship of Indigenous material culture in the province, 2) foster the creation of new Indigenous works inspired by those in museum collections and 3) when appropriate, facilitate the repatriation of sacred objects back to appropriate Indigenous communities.

Research into the history of collections management in Canada reveals how the lack of provincial or federal legislation regulating Indigenous material culture has negatively impacted record keeping in Quebec and Canada. This becomes especially clear when we compare Indigenous heritage legislation in Canada to the US. For instance, in a 2018 study titled, “Challenging the Love of Possessions”, which compares access to Indigenous material culture in Canada to the United States, scholar Jennifer L. Dekker reveals how the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act led to the creation of several databases of Indigenous art and material culture in the US. According to Dekker, “The National Park Service, which administers NAGPRA, publishes a suite of online tools to encourage transparent, accountable repatriation. Seven distinct databases include information regarding Indigenous repatriation claims and how federally funded institutions have responded. [...] These databases are symbolically and materially significant because they not only assist Indigenous peoples to reclaim their cultural property but also demonstrate the accountability of dominant-society museums to Indigenous peoples." By contrast, in Canada--because there is no legal requirement to do so--there are no centralized databases that catalogue Indigenous material culture. As such, one of Dekker's main recommendations (to promote respectful and responsible repatriation in Canada) would be to create a centralized database of Indigenous material culture in Canadian museums and she is not alone. Since at least 2001, many Indigenous art experts, such as Ruth Phillips, art historian and professor at Carleton University, have also advocated for the creation of a centralized database of Indigenous material culture.

A centralized database of Indigneous material culture would fulfill the decolonial aims of the following three critical texts on Indigenous Human Rights and Reconcilliation:

From the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's Calls to Action, p. 8:

Museums and Archives

· 67. We call upon the federal government to provide funding to the Canadian Museums Association to undertake, in 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.

From the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, p. 12, article 12:

Article 12

· 1. Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest, practise, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies; the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites; the right to the use and control of their ceremonial objects; and the right to the repatriation of their human remains.

· 2. States shall seek to enable the access and/or repatriation of ceremonial objects and human remains in their possession through fair, transparent and effective mechanisms developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples concerned.

From the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People, Vol 5: Renewal, p. 221:

· 3.6.4 Museums and cultural institutions adopt ethical guidelines governing all aspects of collection, disposition, display and interpretation of artifacts related to Aboriginal culture and heritage, including the following:

o (a) involving Aboriginal people in drafting, endorsing and implementing the guidelines;

o (b) creating inventories of relevant holdings and making such inventories freely accessible to Aboriginal people;

o (c) cataloguing and designating appropriate use and display of relevant holdings;

o (d) repatriating, on request, objects that are sacred or integral to the history and continuity of particular nations and communities;

o (e) returning human remains to the family, community or nation of origin, on request, or consulting with Aboriginal advisers on appropriate disposition, where remains cannot be associated with a particular nation; and

o (f) ensuring that Aboriginal people and communities have effective access to cultural education and training opportunities available through museums and cultural institutions.

This database would help foster increased research and scholarship on Indigenous material culture in the province by rendering records more accessible, searchable and discoverable online. Specifically, the database will centralise the search platform and consolidate all the records of Indigenous material culture in one place. This will create a single destination for anyone invested in Indigenous material culture. In turn, we anticipate that this will encourage scholars and students to commit to researching Indigenous objects at greater frequencies because it will greatly simplify the process of finding records online.

Likewise, this database will foster the creation of new Indigenous works inspired by those in museum collections. For example, contemporary Mi’gmaw ceremonial regalia is often created by consulting historical examples of regalia housed in museums. In fact, Travis’ brother, an artist, is involved with an ongoing project to reproduce a modern duplicate of a regalia housed in a museum abroad. As it stands, contemporary Mi’gmaw artists can only learn from objects in museums that are either 1) on display or 2) digitized (with hi-res images) in a museum’s collection catalogue online. With the current infrastructure, many objects are therefore not being consulted--either because there exists no digital record of the object or because there exists no image of the object. Either way, this database would thereby become a resource for the next generation of Indigenous artists in Quebec (and beyond) who could consult the Indigenous holdings of Quebec museums through one centralized digital platform and be inspired!

This database would also facilitate the repatriation of sacred objects back to appropriate Indigenous communities, because--put plainly--it is impossible to repatriate objects if their existence is not published in a digital or otherwise publicly available catalogue. For this reason, the current lack of a simple, centralized database places undue burden on Indigenous communities and nations when it comes to repatriation because it requires them to have knowledge of museum practices: they must not only search multiple museum catalogues using a variety of search terms but also rely on incomplete records. This database would therefore render the situation more ethical and equitable for Indigenous communities.