The Haudenosaunee Confederacy retrieves sacred objects from the Geneva museum

The restitution ceremony took place on February 7th at the Musée d'ethnographie de Genève (MEG).  Due to the sacredness of the objects, they are in a closed box and cannot be photographed.  (Chiara Cosenza/MEG - photo credit)

The restitution ceremony took place on February 7th at the Musée d’ethnographie de Genève (MEG). Due to the sacredness of the objects, they are in a closed box and cannot be photographed. (Chiara Cosenza/MEG – photo credit)

After almost 200 years in Swiss museums, two sacred objects of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy have returned home from overseas.

A delegation from the Haudenosaunee External Relations Committee traveled to Geneva, Switzerland last week to retrieve a medical mask and turtle rattle from the Haudenosaunee Musée d’Ethnographie de Geneve (MEG).

“It was as if the Mask had slept for 200 years and now the Mask is awakening again,” said Kenneth Deer, a Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) from Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal, and was part of the delegation.

The Haudenosaunee, who include the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Kanien’kehá:ka, and Tuscarora nations and live on both sides of the US-Canada border, consider medicine masks to be living beings.

Ka'nhehsi:io Deer/CBC

Ka’nhehsi:io Deer/CBC

“We have to treat it that way and we don’t think of it as decoration, something to decorate your wall with,” Deer said.

“You wouldn’t treat your brother by hanging them on the wall in a museum.”

The museum held a public ceremony on February 7 to hand over the mask and a turtle rattle. It coincided with the start of a year-long list of activities to commemorate the centenary of Deskaheh’s arrival in Geneva.

Deskaheh, a Cayuga chief, attempted to lobby for international recognition of the Haudenosaunee as a sovereign nation, but in 1923 he was denied the right to speak before the Assembly of the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations. Before returning to Canada, the mayor of Geneva invited him to address the city’s population.

We know that tribal peoples ask first and foremost to be considered sovereign, so we want to acknowledge that too,” said MEG Director Carine Ayélé Durand.

It’s lucky to know they’re home. At the same time, a sense of loss from our point of view that is not a bad loss.”

Chiara Cosenza/MEG

Chiara Cosenza/MEG

However, Durand said it was important for the museum to take a proactive approach.

“Sometimes I find that museum professionals don’t even know that some objects are sacred or sensitive,” she said.

“One way to be proactive would be to reach out [with] indigenous organizations and then asks them for help to help verify their collections.”

Request repatriation

In 1995, the Haudenosaunee Grand Council issued a policy statement on medical masks, banning their use for commercial purposes and public exhibitions, including photography. It also called for the return of all masks from private collectors, museums, galleries, universities and other institutions.

“We’ve already had hundreds if not thousands who have returned, but I know there are probably just as many out there,” said Brennen Ferguson, a member of the Tuscarora Nation and one of the other delegates.

Saskia Maye/MEG

Saskia Maye/MEG

Ferguson spotted the mask on display during a visit to the MEG in July 2022 and immediately contacted museum management.

“It was pretty sad. It’s like seeing a person who has been neglected,” he said of seeing the mask.

“We understand that we have a responsibility to take care of these things and strengthen them through ceremonies.”

7 month process

The Swiss historian and politician Amédée-Pierre-Jules Pictet de Sergy donated the mask and a turtle rattle to the museum’s predecessor in 1825. How they came into his possession is unknown.

After being contacted, the museum quickly removed the mask and rattle from the display, a ceremony was held and they were safely stored pending an official request for repatriation.

The management of the MEG and the Department of Culture and Digital Transformation of the City of Geneva quickly approved the handover of the objects. From start to finish, the process took seven months to get the items shipped back to Canada.

Anna Pizzolante/Ville de Geneve

Anna Pizzolante/Ville de Geneve

Both Ferguson and Deer said the museum’s and city’s quick response and collaboration is an example for other institutions to follow.

“It kind of showed me how easy that can be when you’re dealing with respectful people,” Ferguson said.

Now that the sacred objects are back home, the delegation said they are being used for ceremonial purposes again.


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