Homeward Bound

Mi’kmaw communities to share stewardship of artifacts with American museum.

Written by Nelle Oosterom

Posted July 12, 2022

Tucked away in the National Museum of the American Indian’s Cultural Resources Center (NMAI) in Suitland, Maryland, are hundreds of Mi’kmaw artifacts from communities in Atlantic Canada.

American anthropologists collected the artifacts for the museum in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Now, however, thanks to a partnership with the NMAI, the Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre is an important step closer to bringing the artifacts collection home to Mi’kma’ki (the traditional lands of the Mi’kmaq) on Canada’s East Coast.

In a news release, Mi’kmawey Debert said, “for many Mi’kmaq, museums feel like dark, non-living places where the cultural materials of our ancestors have been held just out of reach, and where our stories were told with little consideration of our world views, lived experiences, and values.

“Mi’kmawey Debert seeks to change these experiences, and that starts with bringing our artifacts and community collections back home to Mi’kma’ki.”

Mi’kmawey Debert is a non-profit organzation administered by the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq and mandated by all thirteen Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw chiefs. It is currently designing a Cultural Centre at the Debert ancestral sites in central Nova Scotia, which are collectively a federally designated National Historic Site.

As part of the process of obtaining the artifacts, Mi’kmawey Debert sent two curatorial associates to Washington for nine months to work with staff at the NMAI, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution.

“Each day they will be examining objects, forming questions, and seeking guidance from knowledge holders, practitioners, and experts in our communities,” said the release.

Their collection consists of more than five hundred objects, including embroidered clothing, snowshoes, containers decorated with porcupine quills, tobacco pipes carved out of pipe-stone, and a variety of gaming objects, including many examples of a game called waltes, a variation of a dice-and-bowl game played by Indigenous peoples across North America before contact with Europeans.

The Cultural Centre has signed two memoranda of understanding with the NMAI to share stewardship of the collection. It is also seeking the return of artifacts from the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec.

Executive director Tim Bernard said the future Cultural Centre will be about 3,600 square metres and will feature a café, an archive, and four different galleries. Construction could begin in 2023 and be completed by 2025.

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This article originally appeared in the August-September 2022 issue of Canada’s History.

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