Artifacts long stored by the Smithsonian will go on view at the new Mi’ kmaw cultural center in Nova Scotia

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These are Castle Bay twist baskets from Nova Scotia. Members of the Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre have been able to reconnect families and practices back to the objects. This weave is possibly linked to the Herney family in Castle Bay, Unama’ki (Cape Breton). (National Museum of the American Indian/Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre)

A collection of Mi’kmaw artifacts has been kept in a museum in the United States for decades. The collection will now return to Nova Scotia/Mi’kmaki by 2025.

More than 500 items, including regalia, featherwork, and baskets, are housed at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, first in New York and now in Washington, DC. After that they were acquired by American anthropologists who studied and visited indigenous communities in the early 1900s.

More than a hundred years later, a group from the Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Center in New Carolina, has begun work at the museum to catalog and preserve the objects so they can be brought home. This is part of what the museum calls a co-management agreement.

Cultural Center Executive Director Tim Bernard told CBC Radio that there is nothing more important than the care of the Mi’kmaw community for their collections.

“We are very grateful to the museums and cultural institutions that have done this, but for them, they are part of a collection that is on the shelf, but for us,they are part of who we are.”

Bernard has been working to bring the collection back to Mi’kmaki since 1999. It was then that he first discovered that the items were stored in a US museum. Then that he began to build a relationship with the director of the museum in the hope that the items could be returned for our people to have and enjoy.

After numerous discussions and trips to visit the collection in 2012, a memorandum of understanding was concluded between the center and the museum, and a long-term credit strategy was put forward, rather than repatriation, which has special rules in the United States. This means that the collection will be transferred to the cultural center in Debert under contracts that can be extended.

“The whole point of these loans is to bring the property back to their community and make it more accessible,” said Kelly McHugh, head of conservation at the National Museum of the American Indian.

“The intention is to keep things in the communities for as long as they are needed, so I would say there is not really a definitive end, but the relationship is constantly ongoing.”

Bernard said he was pleased with this, adding that the goal is to get the Mi’kmaki’s collection back since she’s been away for quite some time.

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