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Update: This story has been updated to include details about items repatriated by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. 

Mary Annette Pember

One of the Vatican museums’ least-visited collections of Indigenous artifacts is fast becoming its most contested.

As the world’s attention is focused on Pope Francis’ visit to Canada to apologize for abuses Indigenous peoples suffered at the hands of Catholic missionaries in residential schools, Indigenous groups are calling for the Vatican to return tens of thousands of Indigenous artifacts and art held by the museums.

The Vatican’s Anima Mundi Ethnological Museum houses feathered headdresses, carved walrus tusks, masks and embroidered animal skins all described as gifts given by Indigenous peoples to Pope Pius XI, who served from 1922-1939. Museum curators claim that most of the items were sent to Rome by Catholic missionaries for a 1925 exhibition in the Vatican gardens.

Indigenous leaders were shown a few of the objects last spring when they traveled to the Vatican to meet with the Pontiff. Now they are questioning how the items were actually acquired, and some say they want them returned.

“These pieces that belong to us should come home,” said Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council, who headed the Métis delegation that asked the Pope to return the items.

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In June, ICT notified leaders at Grassy Narrows First Nation in Ontario about a 2012 article in The Christian Science Monitor describing a birch bark scroll sent by citizens of the tribe in 1887 to Pope Leo XIII. In an interview with ICT, Jason Fobister, cultural keeper for the tribe, said that this was the first he or other tribal citizens had heard of the scroll.

“We have lost so much over the years,” Fobister said. “We are trying to recover our language and ways. Those scrolls were used in the Midewiwin religion and we would like to know more about it.”

ICT sent an email to media and museum representatives at the Vatican seeking comment but have not received a reply.

Restitution of Indigenous and colonial era artifacts, a pressing debate for museums and national collections across Europe, is one of many issues for the pope to address during his Canadian trip.

This particular issue, however, reaches far beyond Canada and the Vatican museums.

It seems likely, with their larger and longer history of operating Indian boarding schools in the United States, Catholic entities in the United States also engaged in the same Indigenous artifact-gathering activities as their Canadian counterparts.

Vast collections

Many of the orders of Catholic priests and nuns that operated U.S. Indian boarding schools currently hold historic Native artifacts in their archives and collections, and school leaders likely sent items to the Vatican during the 1925 call for Indigenous items to be included in the exhibition.

This painting by the late Peter Whitebird, a Bad River tribal citizen, was among 39 items repatriated back to the tribe on June 1, 2022, by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.  Whitebird was well-known artist who made paintings for nuns in the 1930s as part of a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project. He died in the 1930s but his descendants live in Bad River. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)

ICT observed a number of items such as moccasins, beaded knife sheaths, pipes and paintings in the archives during a recent visit to the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration at their Mother House in La Crosse, Wisconsin. The order operated only one Indian boarding school, St. Mary’s, on the Bad River Ojibwe reservation in Wisconsin.

Jane Comeau, with the communications team of the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, told ICT that on June 1 the order participated in a private repatriation ceremony with the Bad River Band of Wisconsin Chippewa in which they returned 39 cultural items to the tribe including several paintings by tribal member Peter Whitebird.

The collection in La Crosse appeared to number fewer than 100 or so items, but some Catholic orders and former school holdings could be extensive; it is impossible to know the number and extent of the collections.


In addition to its extensive holdings of contemporary Native art, the Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota stores thousands of historical Indigenous artifacts that have landed in their hands for a variety of reasons.

Since 1968, the center has hosted the Red Cloud Indian Art Show each summer offering Native artists an opportunity to showcase and sell their work, with fees going directly to the artist. The center also acquires art from the shows and has accumulated a large award-winning collection of pieces.

As a result, the center has become a sort of de facto storage facility for historic Native artifacts that are given to or sometimes anonymously dropped off at the organization’s offices.

“Non-Native people have brought us historical artifacts that they claim were collected by their great-grandparents or other relatives who may have lived or worked on the Pine Ridge reservation,” said Ashley Pourier, curator at Red Cloud’s Heritage Center. “Often they are uncomfortable keeping these things and ask us to take them.”

Pourier, of the Lakota Nation, said there are very few places for people to return items to tribes.

“We have accepted it all since we are one of the safest places for these items right now. It’s mainly a storage issue,” she said, adding, “We are running out of space. Hopefully, a tribal or nonprofit entity can act as a repository for these items in the future.”

Unfortunately, few of the artifacts brought to the center have any information attached to them, she said.

“We have reached out to families on the reservation to return items that have identifying information attached,” Pourier said.

Pourier also reaches out to tribes about items that could be repatriated, but she is the sole curator at the center and the work far outweighs resources.

Unfortunately, this is not an unusual situation for institutions such as Red Cloud school, the Heritage Center and others, said Shannon O’Loughlin, chief executive and attorney for the Association on Indian Affairs.

According to its website, the association is one of the oldest nonprofits serving Indian Country and serves an important role in consulting with tribes and other entities regarding the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA.

NAGPRA, a federal law enacted in 1990, provides for the repatriation and disposition of certain human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony by any museum or other organization that receives or has received federal funds.

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O’Loughlin, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, said that any organization that has received public funding is subject to NAGPRA. Denominational schools such as Red Cloud and organizations such as the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration who founded Viterbo University, and Marquette University, which holds the archives for the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, could be subject to NAGPRA laws.

But not everyone agrees. Amy Cooper Cary, head of special collections and university archives at Marquette University, told ICT in an emailed response to questions that they would review the issue.

“I think the majority of the (Marquette) collection is not subject to NAGPRA specifically because it was created by the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions,” Cary said. “I would have to consult with our legal counsel to get a definitive answer on this.”

Many institutions claim ignorance about the law or say they don't have the capacity to address potential issues of repatriation, O’Loughlin said.

“But this law has been on the books for 32 years so there’s really no excuse,” she said. “Plus, there are a number of grants available to organizations to catalog their holdings and pursue repatriation in consultation with tribes.”

O’Loughlin said there is a civil complaint process through which citizens can file a complaint about organizations holding Native artifacts. Organizations that don’t comply with the NAGPRA process can potentially be fined for each item in their collections.

“Sometimes the possibility of a monetary penalty is enough to convince organizations to comply with NAGPRA,” she said.

Path to the Vatican

The path along which some Native artifacts came to be in some institutions' collections are fraught with uncertainty, according to O’Loughlin.

Although the Vatican claims the Indigenous items in its collection were gifts from Indigenous peoples, O’Loughlin points out that the Code of Indian Offenses enacted in 1883 banned Native dances and other expressions of Indigenous spirituality in the United States. Offenders were subject to fine or imprisonment.

Some of the artifacts held by religious organizations could have been confiscated by Indian agents or other reservation authorities from Native peoples, according to O’Loughlin.

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act, passed in 1978, rescinded the Code of Indian Offenses’ religious restrictions.

Official Canadian policy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries also aimed to suppress Indigenous spiritual and cultural traditions, including the 1885 Potlatch Ban that prohibited the integral First Nations ceremony.

Government agents confiscated items used in the ceremony and other rituals, and some of them ended up in museums in Canada, the U.S. and Europe as well as in private collections. The Vatican’s catalog of its Americas collection, for example, features a wooden painted mask from the Haida Gwaii islands of British Columbia that is “related to the Potlatch ceremony.”

During a visit this spring by Indigenous Canadians to the Vatican, Natan Obed, who headed the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami delegation, raised the issue of an Inuit kayak in the collection that was featured in a 2021 report in The Globe and Mail newspaper. Obed was quoted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. as saying the museum head, the Rev. Nicola Mapelli, was open to discussing its return.

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni didn’t rule out that Pope Francis might repatriate some items during the current Canadian trip, telling reporters, “We’ll see what happens in the coming days.”

The Pope is set to be on Inuit lands, in Iqaluit, Nunavut, on Friday, July 29, before flying home to Rome.

There are international standards, as well as individual museum policies, guiding the return 0f Indigenous cultural property. The 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, for example, asserts that nations should provide redress, including through restitution, of cultural, religious and spiritual property taken “without their free, prior, and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs.”

While it is possible Indigenous peoples gave their handiwork to Catholic missionaries for the 1925 expo or that the missionaries bought them, historians question whether the items could have been offered freely given the power imbalances in Catholic missions and the government’s policy of eliminating Indigenous traditions.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called the policies “cultural genocide” in its sweeping 2015 report.

“By the power structure of what was going on at the time, it would be very hard for me to accept that there wasn’t some coercion going on in those communities to get these objects,” said Michael Galban, a Washoe and Mono Lake Paiute citizen who is director and curator of the Seneca Art and Culture Center in upstate New York.

The Holy See’s Indigenous collection began centuries ago, with some pre-Columbian items sent to Pope Innocent XII in 1692, and it has been amplified over the years by gifts to popes, especially on foreign trips. Of the 100,000 items originally sent for the 1925 exhibit, the Vatican says it has kept 40,000.

It has repatriated some items. In 2021, Vatican News reported that the Anima Mundi had recently returned to Ecuador a shrunken head used in rituals by the Jivaroan peoples of the Amazon.

In its 2015 catalog of its Americas holdings, the museum said they demonstrated the church’s great esteem for world cultures and its commitment to preserving their arts and artifacts, as evidenced by the excellent condition of the pieces.

The catalog also said the museum welcomes dialogue with Indigenous peoples and collaborated with Aboriginal communities in Australia before a 2010 exhibit. The collections director, Mapelli, a missionary priest and an associate visited those communities, took video testimonies and traveled the world seeking more information about the museum’s holdings.

Official Vatican museum tours don’t include the Anima Mundi. Private guides say they rarely take visitors there because there is no explanatory signage on display cases or wall text panels.

Margo Neale, who helped curate the Vatican’s 2010 Aboriginal exhibition as head of the Centre for Indigenous Knowledges at the Australian National Museum, said it is unacceptable for Indigenous collections today to lack informational labels.

“They are not being given the respect they deserve by being named in any way,” said Neale, a member of the Kulin and Gumbaynggirr Nations. “They are beautifully displayed but are culturally diminished by the lack of acknowledgement of anything other than their exotic otherness.”

Museums and governments around Europe – in places like Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium – are grappling with the question of their colonial and post-colonial collections and leading the discussion of legally transferring property back, experts say.

In Canada, the Royal British Columbia Museum has gone so far as to create a handbook empowering Indigenous communities to reclaim their cultural heritage.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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