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Canadian researcher challenges Vatican’s claim that its Indigenous artifacts were gifts

A Canadian art expert is challenging the Vatican’s official account of how it acquired tens of thousands of Indigenous artifacts from countries around the world — including Canada.

In the early 1920s, Pope Pius XI sent out a call to Catholic missions around the world to donate artifacts, including Indigenous cultural belongings, to a 1925 Vatican Mission Exposition.

“Basically, they were looking for anything and everything related to mission life and related to Indigenous life during that time period,” said Gloria Bell, an assistant professor of art history at McGill University and a Terra Foundation fellow at the American Academy in Rome. Her research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and Fonds de recherche du Québec.

Catholic missions sent approximately 100,000 artifacts to the Vatican.

Most of those artifacts became part of the Vatican’s permanent collection. That collection includes a human face mask from Haida Gwaii, a rare kayak from Inuvialuit in western Arctic, a pair of beaded skin moccasins, engraved etchings on birch bark and a model of a dog sled made of walrus ivory and sealskin.

Canadian researcher challenges Vatican's claim that its Indigenous artifacts were gifts
Gloria Bell, an assistant professor of art history at McGill University, has been researching the Vatican’s collection of Indigenous cultural belongings and artwork for nearly a decade. (Gloria Bell/Supplied)

The Vatican claims the artifacts were sent as gifts to the Pope. Bell’s research suggests that assertion glosses over a contested history of Indigenous people working under duress to create these items — along with evidence that some of those cultural belongings may have been stolen from communities.

“My research is opening up this question,” said Bell, who has Métis ancestry on her mother’s side.

‘Stolen regalia’

Bell said she studied catalogue records that describe cultural objects being taken during the potlatch ban of 1885 to 1951, when it was a criminal offence to participate in the traditional gift-giving feasts used by First Nations on the West Coast to mark community milestones.

“Those were seized by missionaries during the potlatch ban, so that’s definitely stolen regalia and cultural belongings,” Bell said.

She said she found copies of missionary bulletins, such as the Indian Sentinel, indicating residential school students in the United States made souvenirs for the 1925 Vatican exhibit.

Canadian researcher challenges Vatican's claim that its Indigenous artifacts were gifts
Duane Smith, chair and CEO of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, wants the Roman Catholic Church and federal government to pay for the repatriation of a rare kayak now in the Vatican’s possession. (Mackenzie Scott/CBC)

“It wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary for this to have happened and there is evidence that they did send in artifacts,” Bell said. 

“It’s an ongoing research question. I think there’s a possibility that [materials from residential schools] were also from Canada as well.”

Bell said she read newspaper clippings and a papal call to the missionaries that discussed sending Indigenous people themselves to participate in the exhibit, but hasn’t found anything to confirm that actually happened.

“There is that colonial legacy of displaying humans and the colonial legacy of living zoos that did continue into the early 20th century,” she said.

Calls for repatriation

Few people have actually seen the Vatican’s collection of Indigenous artifacts from Canada. Most of it is in storage. 

But the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has arranged for a group of First Nations, Métis and Inuit delegates — who are meeting the Pope this week at the Vatican — to see some of the artifacts on Tuesday during private tours of the Vatican Museums.

Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council, said she isn’t aware of any Métis belongings at the Vatican but is eager to find out what’s in the Anima Mundi exhibit at the Vatican’s Ethnological Museum, which contains artifacts from the 1925 exposition.

“I surely will be looking for our artifacts and anything that belongs at home with us and in our communities,” Caron said. 

Canadian researcher challenges Vatican's claim that its Indigenous artifacts were gifts
The Vatican has tens of thousands of Indigenous artifacts from countries around the world, including Canada. (Gloria Bell/Supplied)

CBC News was invited by the Vatican Museum to see some of the Indigenous artifacts last December when First Nation, Inuit and Métis delegates were originally scheduled to meet Pope Francis.

But since the visit was postponed due to a global outbreak of Omicron cases, the museum has not responded to CBC’s repeated requests for access and interviews.

Duane Smith, chair and CEO of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, is trying to repatriate the kayak from the Vatican. It’s said to be one of just five of its kind in the world.

“I would hope and expect that, as a part of reconciliation, that not only the church but the federal government work with us proactively,” he said.

Smith said he wants the church and Ottawa to pay for bringing the kayak home. He said the community plans to put it on display and use it in workshops to teach young people how to build one.

“We’re hoping that once our Inuit representation gets over there that they can push things along so that they can come back with some good news,” he said.

Colonial narratives at the Vatican

Bell said she hopes the church will consult Indigenous communities about the ethics of putting cultural items on display, return the belongings and digitize Vatican records so that community members can find out what else the church has in its vaults.

Bell, who grew up in Ontario, said she became fascinated by the Vatican’s collection of Indigenous artifacts after finding guide books from the 1920s about the exhibit.

“It’s kind of like a forgotten chapter, I guess, of Vatican history and of religious history in the early 20th century,” Bell said.

After nearly a decade of research, Bell wrote a book about her findings and experiences while working in Rome’s archives, including the Propaganda Fide Historical Archives, the Vatican Apostolic Archive (formerly known as the “secret archives”) and other religious archives in Italy, Canada and the United States.

Part of the book focuses on how the 1925 exhibit excluded the voices of Indigenous Peoples themselves.

“It was really about glorifying the Catholic Church, and then also covering up this history of seizure and missionary violence in this time period,” Bell said.

Canadian researcher challenges Vatican's claim that its Indigenous artifacts were gifts
A visitor admires a Raphael Room inside the Vatican Museums on May 3, 2021. (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

She said those colonial narratives still exist within the Vatican, and the church’s use of the terms “artifacts” and “objects” are problematic.

“These are the words the Vatican uses to cover its colonial history,” she said.

“There’s no discussion of Indigenous artists or communities and it’s very problematic.”

Her book is currently under contract with the University of Washington Press and is expected to be published within the next two years.

“It’s been … really emotional to work on this project, but also rewarding when I do find examples of Indigenous artists and activists that were at this exhibition,” Bell said.

“I hope this project will inspire more research … and make it more accessible for Indigenous communities, and artists and activists to know about this unknown history.”




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