The Blackfoot tribes of southern Alberta are about to get back hundreds of sacred objects from the Glenbow Museum in what is being called the largest voluntary restoration of native religious artifacts in Canada's history.
The historic deal, which took more than a decade to set up, will see the return of 251 objects that are essential to religious ceremonies performed by the Blood, Peigan and Siksika people, whose lands are to the east and south of Calgary.
Although complex negotiations went on for a decade between Blackfoot elders, politicians, spiritual leaders and Glenbow officials, it was Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, with his little-known, deep ties to the Siksika, who stepped in at the end to make the deal work.
The deal is being hailed as an important step forward in the often strained relations between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians.
The items to be returned include pipes and special paints, weapons, clothing and tepee plans, some of which are contained in bundles highly charged with spiritual meaning. They will be tenderly cared for in ancient ways and used in religious ceremonies.
"What we got back is the equal of putting back missing pages of the Bible," said Narcisse Blood, one of the 13 councillors of the Blood tribe, whose lands are just above the Montana border in Alberta's south.
"It means so much more than the general public out there will ever realize." The Glenbow, Calgary's premier museum and art gallery, which is internationally famous for its collection of non-religious Blackfoot objects, was determined to give back every sacred item,Robert Janes, the museum's president and chief executive, said.
Mr. Janes, who was one of the driving forces behind the complicated arrangement, said some government officials originally balked at the idea of a museum giving things away rather than collecting them.
But the museum's leaders were able to win the day with the argument that it was morally right to give the items back to the people who had endowed them with spiritual significance and who need them to practise their religion.
"Most museums keep collections for posterity, and most museums keep everything forever," said Mr. Janes. "We believe posterity has arrived and that we must give these back to where they can be truly used."
"Without the support of Premier Klein, I don't think it would have occurred," said Mr. Blood. "Maybe sometime down the road, after litigation."
Mr. Klein, who speaks Blackfoot and has been honoured with the Blackfoot name Rides Across the River, pledged at a ceremony late Friday to introduce legislation ensuring the return of native sacred objects from museums to all native peoples of Alberta, not just the Blackfoot.
He said the new law, which he plans to introduce in February, will make sure that these transfers of ownership are unconditional. That means, for example, that a tribe will not have to build a museum-quality environment just to get venerated objects back.
The lack of legislation is a sore point with some of the native leaders in Alberta. Mr. Blood said other sacred artifacts from the Blackfoot are still scattered in private and public collections in Alberta, the United States and Europe.
He said that while Alberta's provincial museum in Edmonton gave back some religious items in the 1970s, it still has some that the Blackfoot want and have yet to acquire. As well, he said, negotiations with an American museum over the return of other objects are shaky.
The Blackfoot are so determined to get their sacred objects back that they have set up the charitable Mokakin Foundation to raise money for their efforts, including any litigation that may be necessary.
Mr. Blood said he has lost sleep over why any of this should be such a battle.
"I've seen some of our elders just break down when they see the objects," he said. "And to have to go through all the bureaucracy, and sometimes we don't get them back."
Many of the objects ended up in museum archives over the last century as the Blackfoot, desperately poor, sold them to make money. As well, some elders gave the objects to the Glenbow for safekeeping during the years the Blackfoot culture was under threat, Mr. Janes said.
"We've fulfilled a very critical role by caring for this material," he said.
Other Canadian museums have given -- or been forced to give -- sacred native items back to their original owners.
The former Museum of Man in Ottawa, now the Canadian Museum of Civilization, gave back some potlatch items whose ownership had been in dispute. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto recently gave a wampum belt back. Museums in British Columbia were ordered to return sacred objects to natives in that province.
But Mr. Janes said a voluntary return on this scale has not occurred before in Canada.
Mr. Blood said the deal is historic and that he hopes the Glenbow's actions spur others to do the same.
But he still struggles with his anger that it takes so long to get back items that allow native peoples the freedom of religion that non-native Canadians take for granted.
"Why does it have to take so many tears, so many deaths, so many suicides?" he asked.