VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican Museums house some of the world’s most magnificent works of art, from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel to ancient Egyptian antiquities and a pavilion full of papal chariots. But one of the museum’s least-visited collections is becoming its most controversial ahead of Pope Francis’ trip to Canada.
The Vatican’s Anima Mundi Ethnological Museum, located near the food court and just outside the main exit, houses tens of thousands of artifacts and works of art made by indigenous peoples from around the world, much of it by Catholic missionaries for a Exhibition in 1925 was sent to Rome the Vatican Gardens.
The Vatican says the feathered headdresses, carved walrus tusks, masks and embroidered animal skins were gifts to Pope Pius XI. who wanted to celebrate the global reach of the church, its missionaries, and the lives of the indigenous peoples they evangelize.
But indigenous groups from Canada, who were shown some items from the collection when they traveled to the Vatican last spring to meet with Francis, are wondering how some of the works were actually acquired and what else is being stored could go on public display after they hadn’t been around for decades.
Some say they want her back.
“These pieces that are ours should come home,” said Cassidy Caron, president of the Metis National Council, who led the Metis delegation that asked Francis to return the items.
The restitution of Indigenous and Colonial artifacts, an urgent debate for museums and national collections across Europe, is one of the many agenda items awaiting Francis on his trip to Canada, which begins on Sunday.
The trip is primarily aimed at allowing the Pope to personally apologize on Canadian soil for the abuses suffered by indigenous peoples and their ancestors at the hands of Catholic missionaries in notorious hostels.
More than 150,000 native children in Canada were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century through the 1970s to isolate them from the influence of their homeland and culture. The aim was to Christianize them and integrate them into mainstream society.
Official Canadian policies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries also aimed to suppress Indigenous spiritual and cultural traditions at home, including the Potlatch Prohibition of 1885, which banned First Nations comprehensive ceremony.
Government agents confiscated items used in the ceremony and other rituals, and some ended up in museums in Canada, the US and Europe, as well as private collections.
It is possible that indigenous people gave their handicrafts to Catholic missionaries for the 1925 Expo, or that the missionaries bought them. But historians question whether the items could have been freely offered given power imbalances in Catholic missions and the government’s policy of eliminating indigenous traditions, which Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has described as a “cultural genocide.”
“With the power structure at the time, it would be very difficult for me to accept that there was no compulsion in these communities to get these objects,” said Michael Galban, a Washoe and Mono Lake Paiute, director and curator of the Seneca Art & Culture Center at State of New York.
Gloria Bell, a fellow at the American Academy in Rome and an assistant professor in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University, agreed.
“Using the term ‘gift’ just obscures the whole story,” said Bell, who is of Metis ancestry and is finishing a book on the 1925 Expo. “We really need to question the context of how these cultural assets came to the Vatican and then their relationship to indigenous communities today.”
Katsitsionni Fox, a Mohawk filmmaker who served as spiritual advisor to the First Nations spring delegation, said she saw items belonging to her people that needed to be “rematriated” or taken home to the motherland.
“You get a sense that they don’t belong there and don’t want to be there,” she said of the wampum belts, war clubs, and other items she documented with her cellphone camera.
The Inuit delegation, meanwhile, inquired about an Inuit kayak in the collection.
The Vatican Museums have declined repeated requests for an interview or comment.
Gregory Scofield, Metis poet and author of the forthcoming book Our Grandmother’s Hands: Repatriating Metis Material Art, said any discussion with the Vatican should focus on allowing Indigenous scholars full access to the collection and ultimately returning items home bring.
“These pieces contain our stories,” he said. “These pieces hold our history. These parts contain the energy of those ancestral grandmothers.”