Indigenous groups in Canada call on the Vatican to return their cultural property

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The Anima Mundi Museum at the Vatican in Rome (via Wikimedia)

First Nations and Indigenous leaders are calling for Indigenous works held in the Vatican to be repatriated ahead of Pope Francis’ July 24 trip to Canada.

Many of the tens of thousands of objects arrived in Rome for the Church’s extensive 1925 Pontifical Missionary Exhibition. Missionaries stationed around the world sent over 100,000 pieces for display, and after the exhibition closed in 1926, the Vatican selected 40,000 for safekeeping – “a gift from the peoples of the world to the Pontiffs”, according to the Vatican – and created the Missionary Ethnological Museum (today called the Anima Mundi Museum). Older works that the church already held were incorporated into the museum, including pre-Columbian artifacts gifted to Pope Innocent XII in 1692. Today, the Anima Mundi Museum holds over 80,000 objects.

Some of these objects belong to the Indigenous peoples of today’s Canada, who have a tortured history with the Catholic Church. Beginning in the late 19th century and continuing through the late 20th century, more than 150,000 Indigenous children across Canada were sent to “boarding schools” under a publicly funded and run program by the Church which aimed to strip indigenous communities of their cultures and traditions and forcibly assimilate them into white culture. The last of these schools closed in 1996, and in 2021 first 215, then 751 unmarked graves of mostly children were discovered, with more being discovered this year. Thousands of children are believed to have died in schools, where physical and sexual abuse was rampant.

The Catholic Church ran about 70% of these schools. According to historian Gloria Bell, whose current work focuses on the exhibit of Indigenous artifacts from Canada to early 20th century Italy, some of the artifacts sent to the Vatican for its 1925 exhibit were made by residential school children such as keepsakes for missionaries.

In late March, Pope Francis met with First Nations, Métis and Inuit leaders at the Vatican to discuss the role of the Catholic Church in schools, and after the week-long talks, the pope issued an apology. “For the deplorable conduct of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask forgiveness from the Lord,” he said.

In Canada, $4.7 billion has been paid in reparations to school survivors. The Canadian federal government provided most of the funds and the Protestant Church provided $9.2 million, but the Catholic Church provided only $1.2 million (a fraction of the $25 million it was originally supposed to raise for repairs).

Today, indigenous leaders are demanding the return of their cultural heritage. During the spring visit to the Vatican, delegates were treated to a special tour of the Anima Mundi Museum and showed some items in the Vatican collection. The subject of repatriation came up in discussions with the pope.

In an interview, Phil Fontaine of Sagkeeng First Nation, the former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), called for immediate action. “My opinion is that we should sit down with Church officials and start discussions about repatriation,” he said.

One of the items on display during the tour was a wooden and sealskin kayak of the Inuvialuit people of northern Canada, sent to the Vatican in 1924. Inuvialuit leaders had already requested the immediate return of the kayak in December, and the The Vatican has expressed its intention to comply. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishopss (CCCB) told Radio Canada CBC that he would be willing to help mediate this conversation with the Vatican.

The Vatican did not respond to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.

On July 24, Pope Francis will arrive in Canada to apologize in person for the abuses that took place at residential schools, and the pressure for the Vatican to begin the repatriation process is mounting. But no firm plan for the talks has been established.

“For so long we had to hide who we were,” Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council, told The Associated Press. “We had to hide our culture and hide our traditions to keep our people safe. At this time, in this time when we can publicly be proud to be Métis, we are reaffirming who we are. And these pieces, these historical pieces, they tell stories about who we were.

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