A shooting star once radiated through the skies of Northern Alberta, Canada, leaving in its wake an ancient 145kg meteorite embedded in a hilltop overlooking the small town of Hardisty, Alberta (Hampshire, 2016). This meteor, both revered in indigenous culture and made controversial by its custody, will once again be on the move as it is set to travel through the busy streets of downtown Edmonton to its resting spot in the new Royal Alberta Museum.
After outgrowing its old location, the new Royal Alberta Museum will open its doors in 2018, revealing roughly double the exhibition space in the heart of downtown Edmonton as the old site had (Royal Alberta Museum, 2018). The main galleries will explore the natural and human history of Alberta, spanning from the days of the dinosaurs up to the modern province of today (Edmonton Journal, 2017). One theme that will be recognized thoroughly throughout both the natural and human history galleries is the important role of Indigenous peoples within Alberta’s history, society, and economy (Royal Alberta Museum, 2018).
The Royal Alberta Museum is situated on the traditional land of the Treaty 6 Indigenous People of Alberta (Indigenous Relations, 2018). As such, the Royal Alberta Museum’s Ethnology program is a steward for the Northern Plains Indigenous people, whose ancestral history spans over 100 decades in Alberta (Royal Alberta Museum, 2018). The Ethnology program cares for over 15,000 artifacts with great cultural and historic value for the people of Treaty 6. Alongside research and careful preservation of volatile artifacts, the Ethnology program is charged with the safekeeping of Indigenous sacred and holy objects (Canadian Conservation Institute, 2015). Sacred objects are cultural resources which have been determined to have special importance to an Indigenous group for medicinal, spiritual, or ceremonial purposes. Museum staff ensures that each object is met with modern museum standards of collection and conservation practices as well as facilitating traditional and spiritual care practices with Indigenous community ceremonialists (Simpson, 2007). Each sacred object in the collection carries with it its own challenge on how to best care for the physical and traditional wellbeing of the objects. Not only do some objects present challenging conservation issues, but these objects may also have special requirements based on the cultures of the originating Indigenous community that must be met to avoid the dissociation of the object from its cultural or spiritual value (Berlo and Phillips, 2007).
Perhaps the most sacred object that came to be entrusted to the Royal Alberta Museum is the aforementioned meteorite that is set to move with the collection to its new downtown location. Named after their creator, the Manitou Stone holds deep spiritual powers by Indigenous tribes (Spratt, 1989). In the contours of the meteorite, the creator’s face is believed to be seen by spritual elders. For generations, tribes made pilgrimage to its hilltop resting spot in the southern plains of Alberta, performing ceremonies and leaving offerings of beads and prayers before setting out on bison hunts or expeditions (Hampshire, 2016). The Manitou Stone was believed to protect the Indigenous people of the plains with its great spiritual power (Spratt, 1989). So venerated was the stone by Indigenous peoples that missionaries in the 1800s stole and eventually moved the meteorite to Ontario, Canada. Tribal elders prophesized that sickness, famine, and war would follow the sacrilege of the stone. The Manitou Stone was returned to Alberta in 1972 to the stewardship of the Royal Alberta Museum. Since its return, many Indigenous groups have called for its repatriation to Indigenous land, though to who it would be repatriated to remains at an impasse; Elders throughout the community believe that the Manitou Stone does not belong to any one Tribe (Hampshire, 2016). Until a consensus is met, the Manitou Stone will continue to be under the care of the Royal Alberta Museum.
As the call for the repatriation of cultural and sacred objects to their associated Indigenous community becomes more urgent (Bolz, 1993), so too does the issue of caring for the artifacts in collections that are either in the process of repatriation or those objects that are under or beginning the process of negotiation (Canadian Conservation Institute, 2015). The Royal Alberta Museum as an institution recognizes the benefits of outreach and community collaboration with the people of Treaty 6. This ensures that those contested artifacts have clear handling and storage guidelines for the museum staff to abide by (Royal Alberta Museum, 2018). In Alberta, The First Nations Sacred Ceremonial Objects Repatriation Act (FNSCORA) is provincial legislation that applies to the Royal Alberta Museum with its purpose to return sacred items to their community of origin (First Nations Sacred Ceremonial Objects Repatriation Act 2000). The Royal Alberta Museum played a role in the development of this legislation and continues to be part of FNSCORA consultations with Indigenous communities throughout Alberta (Royal Alberta Museum, 2018). The Royal Alberta Museum, valuing transparency, has made it clear that consultation and communication with Indigenous groups is the first step towards repatriation (Hampshire, 2016).
Why has the Manitou Stone not been returned to the Indigenous people? The Manitou Stone rightfully falls within legal definition as a sacred ceremonial object (First Nations Sacred Ceremonial Objects Repatriation Act 2000) and it is currently under the guardianship of an institution that abides by provincial legislation. Herein lies the FNSCORA caveat: the FNSCORA calls for the return of sacred ceremonial objects to a single Indigenous group. As previously mentioned, the Manitou Stone does not belong to a single Indigenous group, rather it belongs to all Indigenous people (Gerson, 2012). It is critical for all Indigenous peoples to come to a consensus on what to do with the revered meteorite before the museum can seriously support a repatriation claim. Until this time, the Royal Alberta Museum continues to be the Manitou Stone’s safekeeper.
With the impending move to the new location, all eyes will be on the Royal Alberta Museum and the Manitou Stone. No details have been released on how the meteorite will be transported and what aspects of traditional care will be exercised. Here, I will speculate on the handling, move, and installation protocols that the Royal Alberta Museum may follow. I will not focus on the materials, packing methods, or conservation priorities of the move. The protocols that I suggest will honour Indigenous spirituality and show the potential approaches that can be taken alongside best museum practices to effectively move the Manitou Stone.
Sacred objects must be cared for beyond the usual museum standard (Bell and Napoleon, 2009). When a cultural group who produced or is associated with an object is known, that cultural group should be notified of a potential move and consulted on handling, care, and transportation protocols (Canadian Conservation Institute, 2015). Not only is that museum best practice, it is also part of Canadian legal doctrine and Indigenous rights. Because there is no agreement between Indigenous communities as to which one tribe the Manitou Stone is associated with, the museum staff will be faced with the added difficulty of considering what traditional care and spiritual requirements they must adhere to. Based on their level of involvement and role with the FNSCORA, it is most certain that the Royal Alberta Museum will consider the object as if associated with the Indigenous community at large, seeking panel advise from representatives of the many tribes of Treaty 6. Once museum staff and community collaborators both acknowledge the others group’s expertise, they are able to work in the best interest of the artifact while also promoting greater social understanding (Marstine, 2011).
Extra precautions should be met in all aspects of storage, handling, and display of the artifact (Bell and Napoleon, 2009). A major challenge that staff face at the Royal Alberta Museum is integrating their standards of preparation, handling, and care with that of the traditional care standards stipulated by the members of Treaty 6.
According to Berlo and Phillips (2007), and important aspect of handling sacred objects is restricting who can actually participate with the move. In the case of the Manitou Stone, this restriction would not be based on an employee’s level of strength or surefootedness, rather it would be based on the menstruation cycles of the female employees. Indigenous people follow a lunar calendar as they are a people who are intricately linked to nature (Traditional Native Healing, 2015). Nature is an extension of Indigenous relations. In Indigenous tradition, one such relation, Grandmother Moon, represents female strength. Every month, females embody the sprit and power of Grandmother Moon and are purified of their burdens. When women are menstruating, they are overcome with an powerful inward strength. Because of this, women who are menstruating are not allowed to participate in ceremony. This also excludes menstruating women from handling any sacred objects. While this exclusion of menstruating women may at first seem odd (and even patriarchal in non-Indigenous standards), by not embracing this aspect of traditional care, the museum risks dissociating the meteorite from its sacred status.
On the topic of lunar calendars, it is likely that the Indigenous community will suggest time periods during the year in which the Manitou Stone should move locations; many indigenous communities observe a cycle of ceremonies coinciding with the lunar calendar (American Indian Moons, 2015). This is not true of all tribes in Treaty 6, but as the Manitou Stone belongs to all Indigenous people, it is likely that the museum will abide by the lunar calendars to coordinate move and installation schedules. Berlo and Phillips (2007) propose that sacred objects should be displayed in a manner that is authentic and accurate to the legacy of the object. The lunar calendar is a fundamental theme in Indigenous tradition (Traditional Native Healing, 2015). By honouring the traditions of the lunar calendar, the Royal Alberta museum can honour the legacy of the object in every step leading up to its eventual display.
Smudging and sweat lodges– reference “before te maori)
The final aspect that will be considered is the installation and display of the Manitou Stone. Based on his writings on the ‘Te M?ori’ exhibition, McCarty (2007) suggests that the way in which a museum displays its artifacts, and most specifically Indigenous artifacts, can frame visitor understanding of cultural heritage. Because of this, McCarty posits that the success of the ‘Te M?ori’ exhibition was the result of displaying these artifacts in a way that expresses the vitality of M?ori’ culture. Instead of presenting the artifacts as “foreign” and “lifeless”, the exhibition showcased the living history of the artifacts through ceremony and language. In the new Royal Alberta Museum, instead of displaying the Manitou Stone in a corner case behind glass, it should be displayed in an area where it can bathe in natural light and be surrounded by air, akin to where it was worshiped on the Alberta Plains. The space should be able to accommodate ceremonies and be accessible without admission, just as the meteorite was openly accessible generations ago.
Simpson (2007) points to the importance of “Keeping Places” in museums. ‘Keeping places’ are areas that serve the traditional role of displaying an artifact or sacred object, but they also serve as traditional and ceremonial ground. This space would be purpose built to house the sacred object, but the objects would be displayed in a way that better reflects how Indigenous groups would display their treasures items before. The Manitou Stone was embedded in soil for centuries (Hampshire, 2016). This soil could be integrated into the object’s mount, physically linking it to its roots on the plains of Southern Alberta.