WALK WITH ME
Have you seen one of our traditional Mi’kmaw backets? Maybe you have one in your home or office, or you remember one that your parents or grandparents had or still have. I’ve spoken to a few people who remember when the ‘natives’ would come by to sell their baskets. It was a common occurrence for Indigenous people to sell their baskets, wooden axe handles, and other wares.
I have many baskets in my home. They are some of the most important items near and dear to me, and I can tell you where most originated. We received a handmade wooden basket that was made by my grandmother as a wedding gift, the best wedding gift by the way. She ‘whipped it up’ on the day I got married.
That particular basket was made by my ‘mom’, and it sits in my living room and today holds my medicines: tobacco, sage and sweetgrass. I try to give life to each and every basket I have, especially the older ones.
I feel very connected to L’nu baskets and want to honour them by using them every day, enough of our artifacts sit in museums never to be touched again apart from the occasional ‘white gloves’ that move them from one shelf to another. That makes me sad, so I do my part and use them daily.
My grandmother, Cecelia, aka ‘mom’ still makes the odd basket, a skill that was taught to her by her parents. She will often fondly speak about her trip to Annapolis Royal. She was very young but remembers catching the train with her mother and going from place to place to place to help her mother sell baskets. It was a long and hard trip she says and laughs with seriousness when she says she didn’t volunteer to go again because it was a lot of work, and they travelled many miles. My grandmother and I have had some amazing discussions about those times, when our people would travel across the province to sell their wares to the public.
My great grandparents were both well-known, Ester for her wooden baskets and Richard for both his quality wooden axe handles and baskets. Richard was also a blacksmith, farmer, and wonderful father to his children. He’s also one of my biggest heroes. He made sure his children weren’t taken by the Indian Agent so they wouldn’t have to attend the Residential School in Shubenacadie.
I will often stop at antique stores and the odd yard sale in Mi’kma’ki to look at the bottom of baskets for a particular characteristic that would identify them as being made by my great grandparents. Then I visit my grandmother to verify the finds.
She will sort through them lifting each one. “See this,” she’ll say, pointing to something on the basket, “my dad never did this,” as she passes it back to me. “This one looks like one mom made” only later to discover a disqualifying technique or application. I get excited when she takes a longer look hoping that I have been blessed to find one.
I’ve been able to locate at a yard sale one basket that Richard made. It sits in our home where it holds my blankets. I have also located a basket that Ester made. It currently sits in a home in Antigonish, I’ve been promised that I will receive it when the owner is ready to sell. I’m looking forward to getting that one back because I remember my great grandmother.
I tell you these stories because I want you to know what value they hold for L’nu people. The baskets and other items that were made by our ancestors connect to us to them.
Baskets, typically small ones, will often go for thousands of dollars when auctioned at our solidays. Solidays are meals that take place after an Indigenous person passes away. They take place immediately after the funeral.
Items are collected in the days leading up to the funeral by family, friends, and community members. Those items are then auctioned off and purchased by people who have gathered to pay their last respects. The money collected from these solidays is used to pay for the expenses that arise from burying our loved ones. Most times, enough money is collected to pay for both the funeral and headstone. Pretty cool, eh? Even in death we continue to support and take care of one another.
Someone made those baskets. Someone harvested the wood. Someone prepared the strips. Someone put love and energy into one of those baskets. Someone gave that natural material life to be a useful mechanism. So, they aren’t just baskets.
If you have a basket in your home, ask about its origin and if you’re interested see if it can be returned to a family member who made it. Receiving a basket that was made by a loved one who has passed is one of the kindest gestures one can make, or at least that’s my experience.
Many of the baskets I find have initials on the bottom, usually in pencil. Us “basket folk” can find a basket maker’s family member to return it to. Call it an act of Indigenous repatriation, returning it to where it belongs.
To be clear, I’m not talking about the baskets you had commissioned or purchased lately, but the artifacts and items that are historically and culturally important that were not crafted for you to purchase.
What’s Indigenous repatriation you ask?
Google will tell you that it’s the return of cultural property to the originating country, community, family or individual.
The ‘white gloves’ items are usually handled in museums. In the Nova Scotia Museum for instance, there are thousands of pieces that belong to the Mi’kmaq.
The artifacts are housed there because we L’nu are incapable or ill equipped to house them in our own communities, or so we are told. Sometimes that’s true, some of our communities don’t have the temperature-controlled or light sensitive mechanisms or the facilities to properly store them. But believe me, we want these items returned. Think about the connection I have to the baskets, and it will give you a better sense of why we’d like to have these items returned.
Thankfully, we have people who are tirelessly working to have our items returned. We identify where our cultural property is located, and we make the ask. Then we wait for years as we convince the various decision makers, museum directors, curators, government officials to have the items returned.
The Mi’kmaq regalia (moccasins, jacket, pipe, and brooch) that was kept in an Australian museum for more than 130 years is now displayed at the Millbrook Cultural & Heritage Centre.
I won’t go into the politics of this issue; I’ll just say that it is very difficult for Indigenous people to have the things that were taken from us returned. Like all things, it usually comes down to money, egos, and professional maintenance ideology. Lost is the logic, connection, understanding, reconciliation, or more importantly the moral obligation.
We have an active community of looters in Nova Scotia who seek out, remove, and steal Mi’kmaq cultural items from our unceded landscapes for personal and profitable gain. While baskets, writings, and paintings aren’t as popular, there are Mi’kmaw burial items hanging in people’s homes.
Mi’kmaq archaeology is removed and stolen on a regular basis, especially in the mainland. When the waters recede, and our traditional water routes and encampments are exposed the thieves come out. I’ve witnessed these incidents many times particularly when dams are drawn down.
It’s a heartbreaking feeling to know there is nothing that you can do except chase them out of an area, only to have them return again and again and again. It’s heart breaking and frustrating because you feel hopeless.
To them it’s an item they can sell add to an existing collection. To us, it’s a story of our ancestors. How we lived before the settlers came, historical evidence to say we were here more than 10,000 years ago. Yes, we’ve been here for more than 10, 000 years. Our archaeology tells us so.
What’s more frustrating is that not one single person has ever been charged for stealing archaeological items that belong to the Mi’kmaq, despite laws that exist to protect our history.
Often people bring me objects and ask me to value them. I’ve also been asked to buy back archaeological pieces. I won’t tell you how I respond to such requests, but I will tell you this: Their value is priceless, priceless.
These pieces don’t belong to you, you should leave them where they were found. The law says that the item should be reported to the Nova Scotia Museum. But my preference is that you document the location and return the items to the nearest Mi’kmaw community cultural designate or to an elder.
I sometimes ask those in possession of Mi’kmaq artifacts how they have been feeling since coming in to contact with the items. Most say not well to which I explain it’s because they are trying to sell that doesn’t belong to them. Nothing good comes from that.
There is power within those items. We know it because we can feel the connection. It’s the same connection that I have for my baskets. It’s the same connection we have to our ancestors; a little piece of them remains in those items.
I wonder about the people who steal significant archaeology pieces and our burial items. Would they stop if we dug up the graves of their loved ones and removed the items inside? Would they stop if we dug through the bones and dirt of their loved ones?
Would they be okay if we hung their loved one’s items up on a wall for everyone to see? Would they be okay if we put them into a collection with others, displaying their rings, watches, articles of clothing, shoes? I’m thinking no. So why is it okay to do it with our archaeology?
My editor is going to have a kitten because this piece is a bit bigger than I wanted it to be, meskeyi Michelle. But I have one last request, a plea maybe.
If you have any of our archaeology or know someone who has Mi’kmaq archaeology, ask them if they would be willing to return the items. Talk to them or initiate a discussion about repatriation or contact one of the local Mi’kmaq Community Heritage museums, there is one in Wagmatcook, Millbrook, and Membertou to facilitate preliminary discussions to have these items returned.
I don’t want anyone to be charged or items to disappear because of fear, I just want people to do the right thing and return what doesn’t belong to them.
Believe me, you don’t want that bad ju ju (luck) that comes with having those items, but more importantly, it’s the right thing to do.