The Cree Nation is celebrating the permanent return of a 170-year-old traditional beaded hood from the Lachine Museum, where it had resided for over 70 years. Grand Chief Abel Bosum announced the repatriation accompanied by two descendants of Jane Gunner, who is believed to have owned the hood around 1850 as the wife of the Chief of Mistissini.
“The significance of this act of repatriation is that it returns our stories to us,” stated the Grand Chief. “By repatriating objects such as these, we ourselves become more whole. Repatriation of our cultural treasure is a profound act of decolonization.”
This type of hood would be worn during ceremonies, such as weddings or the return from an important hunt. Bringing home this cultural artifact signifies for Bosum a reconnection with ancestors and ancient traditions that can be used for educational purposes at the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute (ACCI) in Ouje-Bougoumou.
“This beaded hood speaks to us in ways that it cannot speak to anyone else,” explained Bosum. “For the Cree people, it is full of meaning that touches us in a very deep way. The repatriation of the Gunner Hood represents an important step in ensuring the transmission of our Cree culture to our future generations as well as honouring the traditional customs of our people.”
Before the cultural institute began searching worldwide museum catalogues in 2011, it was believed that these hoods might only exist in the memories of Elders. As this type of headdress hadn’t been seen in Cree communities since the mid-20th century, ACCI’s research intended to highlight the important traditional roles of Cree women – for example, women chosen to be hood bearers had special teachings passed onto them.
“This beaded hood is embedded in a rich cultural tapestry, a rich social landscape and a rich universe of Cree history,” asserted Bosum. “We can trace how we are connected to them. They are not, for us, abstract artifacts of history – they are tangible reminders of where we came from and who we are.”
Research by Paula Menarick identified the fragile, elaborately decorated Cree hood’s connection with the Gunner family and successfully reunited it with family members in Mistissini in 2016. At the time, Gunner’s granddaughter Dinah Simard said the visit was “like meeting my Gookum [grandmother].”
“It was a powerful, emotional moment,” recalled the ACCI Director at the time, Sarah Pash. “When the family said they would be happy for it to come back home to the territory, we started working in earnest with the City of Montreal and the museum to try to make that happen.”
The hood made of wool, cotton and glass beads was donated to the Lachine Museum in 1948. It was in poor condition before being restored by the Centre de conservation du Québec about 15 years ago. When the Cree Nation Government asked Montreal for its repatriation in 2019, it was viewed as an opportunity to advance the city’s reconciliation process with First Nations.
“By retrieving this item that carries such an important historic significance, the Cree community will retrieve a symbol of its heritage and of the expertise of its ancestors,” stated Montreal mayor Valérie Plante. “We’re happy to demonstrate that it can be done with kindness, openness and mutual respect.”
Aanischaaukamikw opened in 2011 with the intention of decolonizing through self-representation. As a central repository for vital artifacts, documents and traditional teachings, it is designed specifically for cultural preservation, conservation and knowledge transfer.
At the same time, international attitudes toward repatriation began to shift. In 2019, Bill C-391, An act regarding a national strategy for repatriation of Indigenous human remains and cultural property, passed to the Canadian Senate, though it died on the order paper when a federal election was called in October that year. At the Canadian Museums Association national conference in 2019, the Indigenous Repatriation Handbook was launched to help participants navigate the inherent complications of these processes.
“We’re in this era of decolonizing museums and heritage work,” explained Pash. “We can make decisions about our heritage ourselves. All the work done in Eeyou Istchee is from the stance that heritage is our right to express and access. This act of repatriation is part of that broader context.”
While museums have collected “cultural artifacts” for centuries, many have been forced to rethink longstanding imperial biases as Indigenous communities increasingly reclaim their histories. Growing Indigenous empowerment has resulted not only in greater control over their own cultural histories but also a stronger Indigenous influence in mainstream institutions.
Last year, Jonathan Lainey became the first Indigenous curator of one of the country’s largest collections of Indigenous archeological and historical artifacts – housed at the McCord Museum in Montreal. With over 16,500 objects documenting nearly 12,000 years of First Nations, Inuit and Métis history, Lainey (a member of the Huron-Wendat Nation) is tasked with reinterpreting the collection and making room for Indigenous perspectives.
“The simple fact that we have all of these objects here is evidence of colonialism,” Lainey told the CBC. “Indigenous Peoples’ access to their collections is something really important. I’m not talking at this point about repatriation, but simply the fact that they can actually connect or reconnect with the materials of their cultures.”
The Cree Nation may just be beginning this process of reconnecting with cultural materials scattered throughout the world’s museums and personal collections. Aanischaaukamikw continues to seek other significant Cree artifacts, such as a painted caribou hide clothing that has been identified in Ontario.
“We know things have been leaving our territory for centuries ever since European incursions,” Pash told the Nation. “Of course, because of its personal connection and strong community connection, this hood was prioritized. There are other items now that are being looked into for possible repatriation but there’s still a lot of research to be done before we specifically identify items.”
Photos provided by the McCord Museum