Mi’kmaw regalia returns home after more than a century in the Australian Museum
Several pieces of Mi’kmaw regalia donated to an Australian museum more than a century ago will be returned to Nova Scotia next month.
Heather Stevens, the manager of Millbrook Cultural and Heritage Centre, has been trying to bring the insignia home since 2012, when she began working there.
Stevens said at the time she noticed the center had displayed a photo of the insignia — a men’s jacket, moccasins, leggings, pouch, brooch and whistle — rather than the actual items.
She asked why that was.
She eventually learned the items were in a drawer at the Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, and contacted staff there in hopes of making a connection.
Stevens said she spoke to the woman who managed the museum’s Indigenous collections.
“Our focus [of the conversation] was on our culture, our heritage, anything that means anything to us, because she was indigenous herself,” Stevens said Tuesday.
“It’s been like a woman-to-woman connection and how much it means to us to have our story where we can show it and appreciate it, and have it where people can see it for years to come.”
Stevens wasn’t the only person wondering why there was only a photo of the insignia in the center.
In 2018, Nova Scotia Liberal Assemblyman Bill Casey visited the cultural center and saw the photo that inspired him to draft Bill C-391, which called for the federal government to develop a national strategy that would establish a mechanism for the repatriation of Indigenous people Communities and organizations includes cultural assets.
“We have such a rich Indigenous history and it’s so important for young Indigenous people to see that,” Casey said at the time.
How the items ended up in Melbourne
The insignia includes a beautifully embroidered jacket which is beaded along the bottom, lapels, shoulders, cuffs and back. The moccasins and pouch have similar beadwork.
The whistle is made of wood and porcupine quills and features carved animals unique to the Mi’kmaq.
Stevens said there are still some questions about the insignia, but it’s believed they were made by a Mi’kmaw craftswoman named Christina Morris, who lived somewhere between Millbrook and Shubenacadie in the 1840s.
Stevens said the regalia were commissioned by Samuel Huyghue, an Atlantean-Canadian official, writer, and artist with a keen interest in Mi’kmaw culture.
“In his mindset, he thought the Mi’kmaw people were going to lose their ability to do their craft, so he went around collecting some things from the Mi’kmaw people to protect them,” Stevens told CBC radio Main Street Halifax On Monday.
Stevens said Huyghue left Nova Scotia with the regalia in the mid to late 19th century and moved to England.
He then traveled to Melbourne, Australia, where he died in 1891 and bequeathed the regalia to the Victoria Museums.
Stevens said she has no grudges against the museum or Huyghue because the insignia has been well cared for and is in “pristine condition.”
“I don’t think his intentions were bad,” she said. “I think his intention was to preserve it and when he left it to the museum[s] Victoria, I don’t think it was because he felt we didn’t deserve it, I think it was his inability to bring it back to Nova Scotia.”
Why the repatriation took so long
Stevens said the insignia’s return was a long time coming.
She said the Melbourne museum needed to ensure the Millbrook Center had adequate resources and equipment to safely display and care for the items.
It also required extensive paperwork and discussions as to why the insignia should be returned to Nova Scotia.
She said after the museum’s page was sorted, it also required many discussions with the federal government to secure funding for equipment, flights, housing and insurance.
Stevens will travel to Melbourne in March to collect the items. She is accompanied by Diane Sack, a Mi’kmaw pipe-bearer, who will perform ceremonies before the items leave Melbourne and when they return to Nova Scotia.
She said it’s hard to believe the items are finally coming home after so many years away and 11 years of work.
“I’m not reclaiming it, our Mi’kmaw people have a piece of our history back,” she said.
“I’m lucky to be that person who can bring it back to our people.”
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