My friend was flanked by two Inuit elders as she repeatedly picked up and asked about bones found on the ground. “A walrus rib,” the elder would reply, and then my friend would be off after another object. She knew that knowledge from elders is in shorter supply every day, and that the moment might be her only chance to ask about the bones she’d seen littering the tundra.
When she picked up a shaped bone covered in lichen, however, the elder next to her paused. He looked more carefully at it, and then called over the other man. Together they discussed the object, and as my friend’s excitement grew, they said it was a snow knife made from whale jaw.
She turned it wonderingly over in her hands. An actual artifact that would have been buried by snow most of the year. She might be one of the only people who had held it since its maker had used it for carving the drifts into igloos.
She asked the elders what to do with it. They told her she could throw it to the ground again, or take it. At first, influenced by her southern suspicions, she suspected a trap. Were they encouraging her to show her greedy southern ways, or did they actually mean that she might have it. And if she could take it, with their blessing, should she?
In the end, she took the artifact home, fending off the jealousy of the other southerners who wanted to find their own ancient Inuit artifact. Possession of the object weighed on her, however, as she frequently returned to the elders’ admonition: “Don’t tell the archaeologist.”
Like her, I rework her encounter with the past in my head. Who has title to the objects left by former members of the community if not the elders? And if the archaeologist can claim title, what does that look like?
Immediately it will occur to anyone interested in matters of sovereignty that the elders should have the right to dispose of their property—or that of their ancestors—as they see fit, regardless of the endless streamer of laws coming from faraway Ottawa. If they were inspired by the southerner’s awe, or merely wished to be hospitable to a young newcomer, so goes the argument, they were within their self-given rights. The Canadian government—which has more genocidal actions to account for than beneficence—does not have any authority—except that which they give themselves—to say anything about indigenous artifacts. More importantly, the elders are their people’s knowledge keepers, and therefore may well have gifted the snow knife for a purpose which goes far beyond a casual gesture.
Perhaps they thought that a southerner who showed such interest in northern culture should be encouraged, or that such a gift might engender a respect for Inuit culture in the rest who were merely tramping the landscape taking selfies. My friend is a teacher, so maybe they thought she would incorporate what she learned into her lessons. Therefore, their gift might return a hundredfold as the children of the community feel their own connection to their past as well as observe the rare moment that a southerner respects their culture. That might encourage them to look at their own cultural practices anew.
Without access to the elders’ thought processes, we are left with the actions of archelogy as a field as it is practiced when it comes to indigenous artifacts. It will surprise no one to hear that the colonial attitude toward indigenous cultural artifacts is not always respectful. Much of the clothing found in museums was taken from indigenous people killed in massacres, while other artifacts were looted from their destroyed towns and villages or unfairly traded for, which amounts to theft by another name. Even in modern times, as Thomas King justly addresses in his Dead Dog Café show, “It’s good to have Indians in Canada so that white anthropologists don’t have to dig up their own graveyards.”
I’m sure King’s statement resonates for many indigenous listeners, and even made a few colonials pause and they remembered that loyalist graveyards in eastern Canada remain untouched while grave sites which are much more recent are regularly pawed over to satisfy the route of a highway or a museum’s collection.
The archaeologist where my friend is living is almost certainly more beholden to their own career—and what articles they can publish—than they are to the elders. And they are more interested in what museums and their field of study wishes to know than the needs or wishes of the community.
The discovery of Kennewick Man in the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington, United States, in 1996 is a famous case of the wrangling which can happen as the colonial powers struggle to control even the ancestors of indigenous people. Once DNA confirmation established what the local Umatilla people had suspected, the skeleton was turned over to them for a tribal burial. However, that only happened after the archaeologists pursued a lengthy court case in which they argued their study was more important than the relatives’ wishes about the treatment of their ancestor’s body. The Spirit Cave mummy from a 1940 discovery, and the Wizards Beach Man from 1978, were similarly contested remains, and that led to lengthy court battles to repatriate the bodies.
In 1999, when Kwäday Dän Tsʼìnchi (Long Ago Person Found) in the Southern Tutchone language, the four hundred year old preserved DNA showed similarity to that of local people, but the archaeologists in this case were much more circumspect about how they handled the body. They consulted with the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, who sent representatives to name the person. The First Nations bands were further consulted about the project in general and dealt with the disposal of the remains once the agreed upon scientific studies had taken place.
Similarly, the only local source of metal in Greenland, which was Innaanganeq meteorite, still resides in the American Museum of Natural History and the University of Copenhagen Geological Museum. In 1894 Robert E. Peary shipped the three largest pictures to the United States where he told them to the American Museum of Natural History.
There is no museum in my friend’s new home, and there is no local collection of artifacts to which she could contribute the snow knife. Although southern museums and art galleries frequently trade in Inuit art, they have no money for building a permanent exhibit in the north. Therefore, the snow knife either stays on the ground, is collected by an archaeologist where it might contribute to a paper to enhance the archaeologist’s career, or merely catalogued, boxed up, and shipped south.
I’m not sure that the artifact is better off in the hands of my friend, but at least in accepting the generous gift she is following the dictates of the elders, who have repeatedly seen anthropologists shipping their history and culture into a green southern land where it remains. They know what little the north gains from such encounters, and that might make them reluctant to give up yet more of their history to such unsteady hands. Perhaps, given the absence of a museum, the poor condition of housing in the north which makes their own living situation unstable, the elders merely choose the best option amongst those which were worse.
My friend senses the responsibility which she has taken on, and just as in her instruction she feels the weight of her task; she will ensure that the snow knife will not merely be thrown away, put on a museum shelf to attract colonial currency to the institution, hidden in a box, or as lost completely to time as it would be if left on the ground. Given the way indigenous artifacts are handled by the Canadian government or curious southerners, perhaps that is the best we can hope for.