A Miracle Story of Repatriation

Mi’kma’ki Art
Mi’kma’ki Art

On our first day of the KAIROS Indigenous Rights Circle meeting on Millbrook First Nation in Truro, Nova Scotia, April 3, we listened in awe to the story of Heather Stevens, Manager of the Millbrook Cultural and Heritage Centre, recounting the repatriation of a magnificent set of men’s ceremonial clothing from Melbourne, Australia to the Millbrook Community. It was a long story of love and faith. It brought out both many aspects of Indigenous struggle and reality in a colonial world, and also the deep commitment to reclaim what is rightfully theirs. This is a spiritual story of sacred creations returning “home” despite seeming unsurmountable obstacles. The story begins with gifted women in the Millbrook Community who needed money to support themselves and their families. Together they designed, sewed and beaded a ceremonial robe, moccasins, leggings, and pouch. They also beaded leather strands to attach to a pipe. A young visitor from England, Samuel Huyghue, living in Halifax with his military father, was very drawn to the people of Millbrook, and upon seeing the great art in the creations of the ceremonial clothing, he valued it so highly that he purchased it when he was returning to England. He would later write a book, Arginou, about all of his experiences with the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia.

Huyghue’s life then took him to Melbourne, Australia, and he carried with him his precious Mi’kmaq art. Melbourne became his home. In his will, he left all of the Mi’kmaq creations to the Indigenous section of the Melbourne Museum. This took place a century ago. There the creations remained enclosed in a crate for many years, opened only on two occasions by Mi’kmaq visitors who asked to see what was stored in the crate and took photos which they brought back to their people.

Upon seeing these photos, the Indigenous people in Nova Scotia began desiring to reclaim the clothing, and the Chiefs were most eager. The administrators of Melbourne Museum were very anxious about the safety and preservation of the artifacts and did not trust that the Mi’kmaq would care for them as they did.

By 2012, Heather Stevens had become responsible for the Millbrook Cultural and Heritage Centre. As she learned about this ceremonial clothing in Australia, and saw the photos, she felt deeply moved to take on the task of repatriation, not knowing how much this would call from her. The mistrust in Melbourne was still very much alive. Furthermore, at that time, there was no Repatriation Law in Australia or in Canada.

Repatriated artifacts and KIRC members, left to right: Mary-Ellen Francoeur, SOS, Henriette Thompson, gkisedtanamoogk, Charles Bobbish, Yvonne Bearbull
Repatriated artifacts and KIRC members, left to right: Mary-Ellen Francoeur, SOS, Henriette Thompson, gkisedtanamoogk, Charles Bobbish, Yvonne Bearbull

Undaunted, Heather lived in hope. A sign of solidarity came from Jim Bernard, Director of the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq – funding which allowed Heather to do research on the process of repatriation. This she began with much energy. Another sign of hope, in 2017, was Heather’s managing to make contact with Genevieve Grieves in the Indigenous Section of the Melbourne Museum. A very close relationship began to grow between these two Indigenous women. In their many conversations, Heather never brought up the ceremonial clothing. However, one day Genevieve volunteered the information that the Melbourne Museum held artifacts from Millbrook, and they were ready to repatriate them. Heather’s heart leapt! 

However, without a Repatriation Law in Australia, everything was held up. Much time passed, with accompanying apprehension. However, hope continued. After much effort, mostly on the part of Jim Berg in Australia, who pushed for a Repatriation Law, it became a reality in 2020.

In Nova Scotia, there was resistance to Heather’s idea of Repatriation, but eventually, in 2018, an MP proposed a Repatriation Bill, C-391. Heather was invited to speak of the importance of the Bill in the House of Commons. She did this eagerly, trusting in the Spirit with her. In 2019, the Bill was passed unanimously in the House, but was stalled in the Senate. The Law was not to be realized for some years.

At the same time, conversation with Genevieve Grieves in Melbourne became more directed to bringing the sacred artifacts home. Since Australia now had a Repatriation Law, doors had opened. In March, 2023, Heather Stevens and De-anne Sack, a ceremonial woman and pipe carrier in Millbrook, flew to Australia to see the sacred contents in the crate. The crate was orange in colour, so immensely meaningful to them as they associated this colour with the children who died or were lost in Residential Schools. It was a wondrous and unforgettable day for these two women.

On reflection, it was clear that this was a sacred story of women’s hope, faith, and power – first the Indigenous women who created the clothing, then Heather’s call from the Spirit, and the strength she derived from this, then the amazing connection with Genevieve in Melbourne who knew it was “right” to repatriate what belonged back in Millbrook, and then Heather’s deep knowing that she must make this journey with an elder in the Community of Millbrook.

Heather and De-anne lovingly accompanied the crate back to Millbrook, arriving on April 2, 2023. The crate was opened with great emotion. This Spirit-filled call had been accomplished. Elders told Heather that she must have had a family member with her. She knew that member was her Grandfather who had always told her, “You are strong!” 

Plans began to share this miracle with the whole Community. Having now been taken out of the crate, out of its long years of enclosure, Heather knew that it must be kept very safely, yet clearly visible for all to welcome and treasure. Heather’s mother wished to prepare the “red cloth” symbolizing power and strength, which would cover the display until it was unveiled to the Community on June 21, 2023. And so, this happened. It had come home to its origins, and there were many tears of joy, love and thanksgiving.

By Mary-Ellen Francoeur, SOS, as told by Heather Stevens

Filed in: Indigenous Rights

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