The Cost of Inaction: A message on the anniversary of Moved to Action
September 27 2023
As we arrive to the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation –a time for us to reflect on reconciliation and how to move it to action – I would like to share a story. On a research trip to the Peabody Museum as a student intern for the Woodland Cultural Centre, the curator indicated that they had my community’s ceremonial masks in their collection but did not know what to do with them. They were sitting on the top of a tall shelving unit, so I climbed a ladder to reach them. I was able to see several masks, and knew we needed to get them home. I had been told by a member of the medicine society that the masks have a life, are for ceremony, and are not meant to be on display in a museum or in a storage facility – they are to be used to continue my people’s traditions.
You will find most Indigenous communities do not classify cultural belongings as artefacts. The way they are cared for – preserved, stored, or presented – will be vastly different in museums than in community. All these belongings or ancestors have life. They are our kin. They are meant to be active and used in community and ceremony, not stored in boxes in locked rooms.
One year ago, the Canadian Museums Association issued a strong statement in support of self-determination of Indigenous peoples with the release of its report titled, “Moved to Action: Activating UNDRIP in Canadian Museums, A Response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #67.”
It states that the first step is the return of all Indigenous ancestors and belongings held by museums, including strong legislation to support the repatriation of Indigenous belongings and ancestors.
The report received extensive media attention – unfortunately, most of it focused on what the price tag of its recommendations on repatriation of Indigenous belongings might be.
Focusing on the costs of repatriation puts a price on reconciliation. It frames the issue as a zero-sum game, or a matter of political choice. It is neither of those things. Our legal systems – treaties and the recently adopted United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act – tell us that these are legal obligations that Canada must uphold.
My ancestors paid a price for being Indigenous through the loss of their language, culture, and way of life. Even so, they fought hard to keep traditions alive in the face of colonization. I know what it’s like to be invisible in the national narrative. My people’s stories are like the ceremonial masks—alive but hidden from sight. Bringing back our ancestors and belongings restores a piece of the traditional knowledge that was removed from our communities. It ensures we will continue to thrive.
Since taking on the role of the first Indigenous Executive Director of the Canadian Museums Association, I have often been asked how I will move the needle on repatriation in this country. There are a few things that need to be considered before I respond to this question. Even though I am Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River, I am leading a non-Indigenous organization. It is my role to ensure I make space for and an Indigenous-led repatriation framework. Making space within our institutions and our sector for Indigenous leadership and authoritative guidance will deliver a more balanced version of our nation’s past.
A federal framework for repatriation must include the establishment of a coordinated federal strategy, backed by dedicated funding. This support will facilitate the often complex and resource-intensive process of repatriating ancestral remains and cultural belongings, while fostering meaningful relationships between museums and Indigenous communities. It is important that the Federal government hear from Indigenous organizations and communities as they embark on repatriation initiatives.
As individuals, we must come together to insist our governments and institutions make concrete steps towards repatriation. To insist we return the stolen heritage of Indigenous communities to their homes, knowing that our Indigenous nations know best how to care for them. Now is the time to act.
Janis Kahentóktha Monture
Executive Director & CEO of the Canadian Museums Association