Today I was lucky enough to be able to attend a lecture with my colleagues at the Canadian Museum Association, which was held at the Centre for Global Pluralism, and featured Dr. Maureen Matthews. Matthews is the curator of Ethnology at the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg. In the talk, “We are not quite All Treaty People yet,” Matthews discussed the work she and the museum have done since her arrival there five years ago to not only improve the exhibits which discuss Indigenous people in Manitoba and Canada at the museum, but also the initiatives she has made in both the repatriation of Indigenous artifacts and fostering long-term, trusting and honest relationships with Indigenous communities in order to ensure that museums are telling stories for them, and not just about them.
The key to this for Matthews was not only acknowledging the history of treaties between Canada and Indigenous people in Canada, but also continuing to foster relationships in the spirit of those treaties. Matthews pointed out importantly that Indigenous people understood exactly what they were agreeing to when they signed treaties, and the expectation was that the relationship did not end with the signing of a treaty. Rather, treaties signified an ongoing relationship that began at that point, but would continue over time and generations.
Matthews argued that it is our responsibility as Canadians to continue honouring and participating in this relationship. Matthews discussed replacing and updating the original exhibit about Indigenous people at the Manitoba Museum, which was grossly inaccurate and offensive in its presentation of Indigenous people as primitive, to one which sought to work with local Indigenous communities to help them tell their own stories and which recognized Indigenous agency in treaties.
In one example, Matthews talked about meeting with elders to ask permission to use pipes in the exhibit. For her, this was an important means of showing Indigenous agency, as pipe-smoking was a key aspect of forming a treaty relationship. She recognized, however, that pipes were sacred, and generally not appropriate to put on display. She explained her motivations for wanting to include the pipes, but also stipulated that if the elders did not want her to put the items on display, she would not do so.
Matthews also discussed an initiative by the museum to be a safe-place for objects like the pipes. Currently, as part of it’s relationship with Indigenous communities, the Manitoba Museum has offered to house sacred or special artifacts belonging to these communities. The special thing about this is that the museum does not own the objects; they still belong to the original communities, and they are able to access them whenever they want. The museum simply acts as a safe and accessible place to store them. This means that things like the eight pipes held at the museum are able to be brought back to the community every year for smudging, and even smoking.
Increasingly, these practices are also being done for educational purposes as well. Matthews described an instance in which the pipes were laid out on the floor on bison skins while she and a group of elders from the community talked about the objects and about treaties to a group of kids in their school gymnasium. One elder mentioned that the pipes should be touched to give the pipes warmth before they returned to the museum. He proceeded to touch each pipe, one by one. All of the other elders, Matthews, and even all of the children in attendance, almost automatically formed what Matthews called a reception line and everyone took time to touch each pipe and send them on their way.
For someone like myself who comes from a strong museum background in which every object is treated with extreme care and usually only touched with the fabled white gloves on your hands, this story panicked me at first. Matthews was completely at ease, however, and described how heartwarming and wonderful it was to witness and be apart of.
The role of museums as educators is essential in doing this work. As this article describes, Indigenous organizations that want to be able to present their own stories and culture are often grossly underfunded, even more so than smaller museums and galleries in some cases. This leaves larger institutions to do this work, which results in Indigenous visitors having to go outside of their community to learn about their own history and culture from a person and an institution that is also outside of their community. While this situation is already not ideal, it puts even more responsibility on museums to forge these relationships in the ways that Matthews has done and continues to do.
During the question period, Matthews was asked about the title of the talk, and what excludes someone from being considered “treaty people.” For her, you are not yet a treaty person if you are not fully educated about the responsibilities we have as Canadians to the treaties. The treaties constitute a mutual relationship, and to not acknowledge or participate in that relationship is a significant problem for our long-term relationship and preservation of Indigenous history and culture. It is also a roadblock that prevents us from viewing Indigenous people as people of the present, not just of the past. In order to move forward in this relationship, Canadians need to acknowledge the agency of Indigenous people in treaties, and respect this treaty relationship in order to stop making them into historical figures that do not exist in the present.
Matthews offers museum professionals an exemplary demonstration of best practices for fostering relationships with Indigenous communities that are collaborative, curating exhibits which assert Indigenous agency, and using their specially-designed storage spaces to help Indigenous communities preserve their special objects in order to be able to continue using them. Her approach is one which we as museum workers should all endeavor to take up.
We also live-tweeted the talk, so if you are interested in catching up on those tweets, check out @kateseally and @paigemc6 for their take on the day!