The former Derbyshire School Library Service has many wonderful objects that formed part of a collection comprising museum quality items. These opened up the world to children in Derbyshire for many decades from the founding of the service in the 1930’s. Children who were living in isolated villages, where the nearest town was considered a world away, had the opportunity to see pictures by famous artists such as Chagall, Duncan Grant, Henry Moore and many others, as well as objects from the far flung corners of the world. The ethnographic collection has a rich and varied range of items and I have been very lucky to work on this material, with collections management of World Cultures being one of my specialisms.
Buxton Museum and Art Gallery cannot keep everything, even though we would love to, we just simply do not have the space or the resources. Whilst we are keeping a significant percentage of the collection, much of it is being offered to other museums and galleries in the UK as part of a project that is funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. We have had great success with this, and recipients include The British Museum, the V&A, National Museums of Scotland, Bristol Museum, Pallant House, the Hepworth, and many others, ensuring that items remain in the public realm.
The objects that have come from indigenous Native American people are going to be sent back as part of a restitution project that is in its early stages, and which will hopefully develop further. The first three objects to be sent back are from the Blackfeet Nation.
The Blackfeet, known as the Niitsitapi people in their native language, is made up of four nations. These nations include the Piegan Blackfeet, Siksika, Piikani Nation, and Kainai or Blood Indians. The four nations come together to make up what is known as the Blackfoot Confederacy, meaning that they have banded together to help one another. The nations have their own separate governments ruled by a head chief, but regularly come together for religious and social celebrations. Today the only Blackfoot nation that can still be found within US boundaries is the Piegan, which reside in Montana; the other three are all based in Canada. The Blackfeet have an oral history stretching back 10,000 years and their culture, and its preservation, is of the utmost importance to them.
As someone who loves the natural world and sees the sacred in all forms of nature, I was interested in the beliefs of the Blackfeet, especially an area of land known as Badger Two Medicine region. This is an area almost entirely devoid of roads and is an expanse of mountains, ridges, river valleys and wetlands along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. To the Blackfeet this is the most sacred place, being considered the place where the world was created and where their people originated from. This sacred part of the Rocky Mountain Front was excluded from Blackfeet lands in a Treaty of 1896, but they reserved access, hunting and fishing rights. Since the early 1980s, when the Bureau of Land Management approved drilling rights leases without consultation with the tribe, the Blackfeet have worked to protect this sacred area, where they practice their traditional religious rituals.
Sometimes it takes an imminent threat and a sense of urgency to spur action toward a solution. As the pressure built to save the Badger Two Medicine before it was irreparably damaged by industrial development, a broad array of voices formally objected in 2015 to any oil and gas development. Thankfully, the Department of the Interior listened and cancelled all the leases for drilling. On June 25, 2020, the Blackfeet Nation released a draft congressional bill to permanently protect the Badger Two Medicine as a Cultural Heritage Area, and happily they were successful with their petition.
The Blackfeet believe that the life of the land and their own lives are bound and intertwined. They seek the power of the ancestors or the hope that an animal’s power or the power of a natural element will be bestowed upon them. The spirit animal, who often appears in human form, might give them a list of objects, songs and rituals that are needed to harness this power. They would then gather the objects in a medicine bundle and enact the rituals that have been communicated to them.
The primary deity of the Blackfeet is the sun which is considered the source of all life and power. The power of the sun is everywhere; in the mountains, lakes, rivers, birds, and wild animals, and this power can be transferred to people. The gift, usually in the form of songs, comes through the medium of some animal, bird, or supernatural being, whose pity for the person comes when the person demonstrates his/her need through fasting. The songs received are a means to contact the spirit powers. The power bestowed can heal the sick, help the tribe, or bring success in finding food. Today, the Blackfeet belief in the spirit world remains strong.
I have been working closely with tribal elders, as well as staff at the Museum of the Native American Indian at the Smithsonian in Washington. Through forging contacts and listening to the needs of the tribes we have taken the first steps in a restitution project that it is hoped will develop further. When contacting the tribes I was met with surprise and excitement that we were the ones openly offering to send their cultural property back to them – normally they approach a museum directly, and often come across misunderstanding and an unwillingness to cooperate. As the representative of the Blackfeet Nation said to me “Thank you for the restitution of those items. It would be nice if other museums in the UK followed suit.”