Nunavut Inuit plan return of artifacts

“Repatriation has played a part in the cultural healing”


The Inuit Heritage Trust is looking at how Inuit artifacts now stored in museums around the world will be repatriated or returned to Nunavut when the territory finally gets its own heritage centre.

Last week, several board members and staff from the Inuit Heritage Trust visited Nuuk, Greenland to attend an international conference on repatriation that drew delegates from Australia, New Zealand, Alaska, Africa, Finland and Norway.

William Beveridge, the executive director of the Trust, said he was inspired to learn how other groups, such as the Maori, have museums that speak to the past and the future.

“They’re working very hard to repatriate their cultural heritage. That’s not just their language, but their cultural beliefs and their practices,” he said.

The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa has 1.3 million visitors per year, many of whom are Maori.

“What really opened my eyes was the Maori people saying that it’s an open door for museums to repatriate,” Beveridge said. “They can return artifacts, but they can also help.”

Gordon L. Pullar, a Kodiak Island Sugpiaq who works at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, talked about a successful effort to return to the village of Larsen Bay the remains of more than 1,000 people from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.

“Repatriation has played a part in the cultural healing that has occurred as pride in identity is restored,” he said.

Eeva-Kristiina Harlin of Siida, a Saami museum in northern Finland, described the difficulties facing a project involving three Saami museums in Finland, Sweden and Norway, which are working together to repatriate Saami material.

The vast majority of Saami material now lies outside the Saami homeland, she said.

All over the world, explorers, anthropologists and other visitors once walked away with cultural objects and sometimes human remains that belong to indigenous peoples.

Disputes over who owns these materials are common. Sometimes these disputes result in conflicting claims between indigenous communities or between the museums and private institutions that hold them.

Greenland has successfully repatriated 35,000 objects from Denmark. The Greenland National Museum and Archives decided to host the international conference on repatriation on the basis of what Daniel Thorleifsen, the museum’s director, called a “good understanding” between Denmark and Greenland.

Beveridge said he feels the Inuit Heritage Trust has good working relations with museums in southern Canada.

“Once we do get our Nunavut cultural centre we’ll find out how well our relationships will be. The way it’s going now, it will be very positive,” he said.

In early March, representatives from every region in Nunavut are to meet in Rankin Inlet to talk about repatriation and advise the Inuit Heritage Trust on how to repatriate the thousands of Inuit objects held elsewhere.

“We want to have guidance from the elders on how to handle these artifacts and human remains,” Beveridge said.

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