An Inuvialuit leader wants the rare Western Arctic kayak held by the Vatican Museums to be returned to the Mackenzie Delta region, where it was built a century ago.
In a statement released on Friday, Duane Ningaqsiq Smith, President and CEO of Inuvialuit Regional Corp. (IRC) in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, said the IRC “is seeking the immediate return of all Indigenous artifacts held in the Vatican Museum collection,” including the kayak.
His comments came three days after the Globe and Mail published an article about the Inuvialuit kayak and other Indigenous artifacts that had been kept invisible in a vault at the Vatican Museums for several decades, and two weeks before the visit of the indigenous groups in the Vatican to meet Pope Francis.
The trip is part of a process of truth and reconciliation following scandals surrounding the abuse of generations of Indigenous children in Church-run schools. In October, Pope Francis agreed to travel to Canada – a date to be determined – where he is expected to issue a formal apology for the abuse.
The IRC was apparently unaware that the Vatican had the kayak. The 4.4-meter hunting craft is mentioned extensively in the book “The Americas” published by the Ethnological Museum of the Vatican Museums (now known as Anima Mundi), and The Globe wrote on the review from the boat by the Royal Ontario Museum in 2004.
Mr. Smith, who declined to join the delegation to the Vatican because of his anger over the Catholic Church’s treatment of Indigenous peoples, said he was “shocked by the insensitive display of these Inuvialuit and Indigenous artifacts. at the Vatican Museum in the context of ongoing revelations regarding the mistreatment and death of thousands of Indigenous children in residential schools, over 60% of which were run by the Catholic Church.
The artefacts Mr Smith refers to – the kayak and around 200 other indigenous artefacts, from killer whale carvings to headdresses – are not currently on display in the Vatican Museums. A few of the items, including the kayak, were removed from storage by Anima Mundi curators on November 22 so they can be viewed exclusively by The Globe. They were put back into stock the next day.
According to Kenneth Lister, a retired ROM curator who was the Toronto Museum’s authority on arctic watercraft, the kayak was built between the late 1800s and early 1900s and is a rare example Western Arctic – larger versions of the Eastern Arctic are more common. Only six western Arctic kayaks exist, including the one in the possession of the Vatican. The others are at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau.
The Vatican Museums say the kayak and other artefacts from the Mackenzie Delta region were “gifts” to the Vatican. They were collected by Joseph Élie Breynat, the Roman Catholic bishop of the Mackenzie region, in 1924 and shipped to Rome, where they were included in Pope Pius XI’s World Exhibition of Indigenous Artifacts. Some 100,000 artefacts from the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australasia were on display for a year, after which much of the vast collection was stored. The western Arctic kayak has been stored and retrieved for almost a century and has not been on display for at least two decades, possibly longer. It is in remarkably good condition, although the sealskin cover has some tears.
“This kayak is a piece of Inuvialuit history, made according to Inuvialuit traditions,” said Smith. “It’s not ‘the pope’s kayak’ and rightfully belongs to the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, where its lessons and importance can benefit Inuvialuit culture and communities.
He declined the interview requests. In his statement, he reiterated his calls for a papal apology and demanded that the church take “immediate steps towards restitution, archival sharing and restitution of lands held by the diocese.”
Anima Mundi intends to restore the kayak after a dialogue with the Inuvialuit on the best methods of restoration, and wants advice on where and how the boat should be displayed. Father Nicola Mapelli, director of Anima Mundi, offered to visit the Mackenzie region next year as part of this learning process and said the boat could go on tour at some point.
The Vatican Museums did not comment on Mr Smith’s statement on Friday. Last week Stefania Pandozy, head of the Vatican Museums ‘Ethnological Materials Restoration Library, said it was important to have the indigenous peoples’ perspective on the restoration and exhibit.
“We have to hear the voices of their culture,” she said in an interview. “The kayak conservation project will be a precious opportunity for human and professional growth for the laboratory in order to establish a fruitful dialogue with the native native communities and Canadian academics who will be actively involved in conservation choices.
In a statement, Paul Gibbard, Chargé d’Affaires at the Embassy of Canada to the Holy See, said: “We are ready to facilitate the discussion between the indigenous peoples of Canada and the Vatican Museums about kayaking and other artifacts, all currently in storage. . “
Kayaking in the Vatican: more information on the Globe and Mail
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