Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Indigenous groups in Canada call for National Museum of Scotland to return human remains



Indigenous leaders want Beothuk tribal remains stored in Edinburgh brought home. The museum has said it will take a 'considered view' if  'the proper approach' is made.

Give back those human remains seems a pretty proper request to make to any institution holding such things...
Chief Nonosbawsut and his wife Demasduit died in Newfoundland in the early 19th century, at a time when the Beothuk tribe was being wiped out by colonial expansion. Scots-Canadian William Cormack took the skull and other goods from the grave of Nonosbawsut - who had been shot dead by British officers in 1819 when asking for the release of his captured partner Demasduit - and sent them to Edinburgh. Demasduit, captured by British troops and renamed ‘Mary March’, died in 1820 - and her remains were also later taken to Edinburgh. [...] All Indigenous groups in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, have signed a letter requesting the return of the remains. “[...] Premier Dwight Ball of Newfoundland wrote to the National Museum of Scotland requesting a return of the remains in 2016 - but saw the attempt rejected based, according to the museum, on Scottish legislation. According to CBC in Canada, part of the issue was with identifying "a community descended from the original owners” to make a valid application. However, with the Beothuk people wiped out this is not possible.
This is so wrong:
 6.4 Any request for the transfer of human remains should be submitted in writing to the Director. This request should set out the claim clearly and give as much information and supporting evidence as possible. In particular: • Full endorsement from the National Government and recognised National Agency (Museum) would need to be provided. • The community of claimants would need to demonstrate that it is a direct genealogical descendant of the community whose remains are under claim and/or that it continues to share the same culture (spiritual beliefs, cultural practices) attributed to the community whose remains are under claim. It would also need to provide evidence of cultural importance, including cultural and spiritual relevance, to the community making the claim and identify the strength of the connection of the community to the remains, and the consequences of their return. • The community of claimants or representatives acting for this community would be expected to demonstrate that they are fully supported by all the potential claimant groups.
One wonders whether the original acquisition of those remains was accompanied by so much paperwork of the same type. Maybe NMS could show us the requests of the  Beothuk elders and direct descendants to dig up their chief's head and look after the remains of 'Mary March' in their museum and are fully supported buy all the groups. Can they?

The Beothuk are the aboriginal people of the island of Newfoundland. They were Algonkian-speaking hunter-gatherers who probably numbered less than a thousand people at the time of European contact.


2 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  2. When non-Europeans seek to enforce their rights, or claim what belongs to them, Europeans seem to require from all of us, a suspension of normal standards or common sense. This seems to be the case here.
    Considering the tragic circumstances of the death of Chief Nonosbawsut and his wife Demasdui, it is cruel for the National Museum of Scotland to behave in the way it has. The requirements set out in the report here are more than exorbitant.
    To begin with what is all this talk about submitting a request in writing that would be considered? When the human remains of the chief were taken, there was no request in writing. Supposing the inheritors of the chief did not know how to write, as could well happen in many areas that have been touched by European colonization. Would that mean that the descendants and relatives of the chief would not be entitled to his remains because they could not write, presumably in English? If the museum knows that the inheritors or descendants exist, why must the museum wait for them to make a request? I would have thought the right thing would be for the museum itself to approach the relatives.
    ICOM’s Code of Ethics for Museums provides high standards for dealing with human remains. See Rules 2.5,3.7, and 4.3 of the Code. Rule 3.7 provides that:
    Research on human remains and materials
    of sacred significance must be accomplished
    in a manner consistent with professional
    standards and take into account the
    interests and beliefs of the community, ethnic
    or religious groups from whom the objects
    originated, where these are known.
    The requirements of the museum are absurd. For example, a requirement that 'Full endorsement from the National Government and recognised National Agency (Museum) would need to be provided'. Supposing the national government is, for whatever reason, not interested in the matter or has no time to devote to this issue, does it mean the relatives of the decease cannot provide him proper burial? And why must the national government that was not involved in the acquisition of the human remains now be involved?
    Equally absurd is the following provision:
    The community of claimants would need to demonstrate that it is a direct genealogical descendant of the community whose remains are under claim and/or that it continues to share the same culture (spiritual beliefs, cultural practices) attributed to the community whose remains are under claim.' Most societies have evolved over the decades. Why must a present generation establish that they follow the same beliefs and cultural practices as their ancestors? Is somebody whose belief and culture differ from those of his ancestor not entitled to seek his remains and give him a fitting burial?
    And who can understand the following requirement?
    It would also need to provide evidence of cultural importance, including cultural and spiritual relevance, to the community making the claim and identify the strength of the connection of the community to the remains, and the consequences of their return.'
    Do we need to comment on the following absurd requirement?
    The community of claimants or representatives acting for this community would be expected to demonstrate that they are fully supported by all the potential claimant groups.
    Somebody does not seem to be aware that we are dealing here with a what may be described as a civil case and not a criminal case. The burden of proof here cannot be so stated as to require a claimant to establish that all potential claimant groups support him. Is nobody in the museum aware that potential claimants to remains stolen by Europeans from non-Europeans could amount to a few hundred? The museum should talk to some of their ethnologists.
    What right has the museum to sit in judgement over such a claim in which it has its own interest? Can the museum play judge and claimant in this case? Proper justice would require a non-interested panel to decide the issue.
    How does the museum’s position here reflect the principles said to guide Scottish Museums in the issue of human remains?

    ReplyDelete