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Bones of Contention - The Museum of Civilization is set to return dozens of ancestral bones to area native people, but the Algonquins want more. Randy Boswell reports.

Randy Boswell

The Ottawa Citizen

Tuesday, December 31, 2002

The Canadian Museum of Civilization is preparing to return dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of bones taken from native burial grounds to the Algonquin people whose ancestors inhabited the Ottawa area before white settlers arrived in the 19th century and began unearthing Indian graves.

The proposed "repatriation" of human remains from the museum's physical anthropology research collection follows a series of Citizen stories earlier this year revealing that a communal cemetery holding about 20 aboriginal skeletons was dug up 160 years ago on a point of land in Gatineau now occupied by the museum itself.

It was also revealed that the museum possesses a single native forearm bone -- stained with red ochre from a burial rite meant to ensure eternal peace for the dead -- that may have come from the "ossuary" excavated in 1843 near the museum site.

That bone -- along with remains taken from burials at Aylmer Island off the Kanata shore, at a property in Old Ottawa South and at four small sites in the Ottawa Valley -- is now slated for radiocarbon testing to help confirm a family connection to contemporary Algonquin communities.

But four larger sites, including two of North America's most important examples of ancient aboriginal culture at Morrison and Allumette islands near Pembroke, are deemed too old by museum scientists to establish a genuine link to modern Algonquins.

That ruling has raised objections among the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg near Maniwaki, who have led the repatriation project and argue that bones from all native burials throughout the Ottawa Valley should be handed over.

The repatriation effort began in late summer, after the Citizen stories prompted discussions among elders from several Algonquin bands on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. A request for the return of all Algonquin bones was forwarded to the museum on Sept. 5.

In a letter of reply to Kitigan Zibi Chief Jean-Guy Whiteduck, museum president Victor Rabinovitch said repatriation could occur promptly, but only "after our archeologists have determined, to the best of their abilities, which of the human remains collections are Algonquin."

He added that the museum would also require "an indication of a broad consensus for your request on the part of other Algonquin communities in both Quebec and Ontario."

Finally, Mr. Rabinovitch offered an explanation of the museum's collection of human remains, which includes the complete skeletons of about 500 native people as well as hundreds of other individual bones. Almost all of the remains were donated by amateur archeologists, farmers and other non-scientists who collected the remains and other relics long before strict regulations were adopted governing archeological sites.

"In studying ancient human remains," he wrote, "it is not the purpose of the Canadian Museum of Civilization to be disrespectful, either towards any modern community nor to the individuals whose bones we hold. Rather, we keep and study these remains because of the information they hold, and our respect for the past."

In a second letter from the museum, archeology director David Morrison informed Chief Whiteduck that "it is our opinion that human remains which are several thousand years old are too old to be affiliated with any modern community without other substantiating evidence."

But Mr. Morrison noted that remains from seven Ottawa Valley sites could qualify for repatriation if radiocarbon testing determined they date from more recent times.

"Modern methods of radiocarbon dating use very small bone samples, about the size of the eraser on the end of a pencil," Mr. Morrison said. "We would like to use this technique to directly date human remains ... in order to be in a better position to determine their suitability for repatriation. ... The cost for this project, which is significant, will be borne by the museum."

In an interview yesterday, Mr. Morrison said carbon dating costs about $800 per test.

The return of Algonquin remains would not be the first transfer of bones carried out by the museum, which adopted a policy favourable to repatriation in the early 1990s.

In November 1998, the complete skeletons of 84 St. Lawrence Iroquois women and children were taken from the museum's storerooms and reburied at the Akwesasne reserve near Cornwall following a request from the Mohawk First Nation. The bones of the 84 individuals, who had been buried around AD 1500, were excavated between 1912 and 1915 by federal archeologist W.J. Wintemberg from a site near Brockville.

Before that reburial, the bones were studied exhaustively by museum scientists, who believe the skeletons are remnants of an extinct Iroquoian nation that disappeared between the time of Jacques Cartier's inland travels in 1534 and those of his fellow French explorer Samuel de Champlain in the early 1600s.

But before the museum returns any bones to the Ottawa-area aboriginal communities, a host of difficult issues will have to be confronted.

The Algonquin nation at Golden Lake, west of Ottawa, and its tribal cousins in Quebec have had thorny relations over the years and would have to reach an agreement on how the repatriation process should be carried out.

Another major stumbling block could be the insistence of the Algonquin -- voiced strongly by Kitigan Zibi education director Gilbert Whiteduck -- that the ancient human remains removed by archeologists from Morrison and Allumette islands in the 1960s should be made part of the museum's handover of bones.

"They have to be included," says Mr. Whiteduck, a point man on political issues for the Kitigan Zibi who has also served as co-manager of an archeological dig at Lac Leamy in Gatineau. "We want them all."

The island sites of the Upper Ottawa have yielded one of the richest archeological resources in northeastern North America, providing a window into a powerful and stable aboriginal community that controlled the Ottawa River copper trade between 4000 BC and 2000 BC.

"Some archeologists consider them to have been the ancestors of the six Algonquin groups of historical times; these scholars see an unbroken continuity in the occupation of the region," says the History of the Outaouais, one of the most extensive recent studies of the Ottawa Valley's native past.

But other scholars, the book notes, believe those ancient masters of the Ottawa "underwent a process of acculturation and fusion with groups that had come from the south around the end of the third millennium BC" and could be the ancestors of several modern-day First Nations -- just one of which might be the Algonquin.

"The people at Morrison Island and Allumette Island were there 5,000 or 4,000 years ago," says Mr. Whiteduck. "Who knows? What we're saying to the museum is, 'We know that we're the closest thing to these people, and you're not'."

Mr. Morrison acknowledges "it's a judgment call as to what kind of connection is direct enough" to warrant repatriation.

What is known is that by the time French explorer Samuel de Champlain paddled up the Ottawa River 1613, he met with several "Algoumequin" tribes -- including one at Morrison Island led by a powerful chief named Tessouat, who used his commanding geographical position at the centre of the river to extract "tolls" of goods from fur traders or native travellers seeking passage.

"As I looked about the island, I noticed their cemeteries, and was filled with wonder at the sight of the tombs, in the form of shrines," Champlain noted in his journal. "The dead man is buried in his beaver or other skin, whereof he made use in his life; and they place beside him all his valuables such as axes, knives, kettles and awls, so that these things may be of use to him in the land whither he goes."

Mr. Morrison acknowledges that "when Champlain came up the river, the ancestors of Algonquin people were living all along the Ottawa River in a number of small bands."

But they were not politically unified, he said, and may not have perceived themselves as members of a collective nation.

And, for a time in the late 17th century, the Algonquins would be pushed back from the river as another tribe from the west -- the Ottawa nation whose name would be their only lasting presence along the waterway -- briefly controlled the trade route.

Mr. Morrison says most of the human remains at the museum that come from traditional Algonquin territory "cannot be, in our opinion, directly associated with anybody because they're so old."

The oldest bones that scientists can reliably link to today's Algonquin communities in the Ottawa Valley would be no more than 700 years old and probably much less, he adds.

"That's the issue: What are the materials in the Ottawa Valley that could fall into that time category? We're trying to identify exactly what we have that could. It is not the majority of what we have. Frankly, we'd like to be as accommodating as we can without violating our own policies."

Despite such disagreements, Mr. Whiteduck says Kitigan Zibi and the other Algonquin nations are committed to taking "a collaborative approach" with the museum.

"We are willing to do it in a proper way, and we said that we, too, need to understand how you approach it. We're not closing any doors," he says. "They can't deny what we're asking, and I think they don't. Where they begin to deny is on the academic research side, feeling that it's an important resource for all of humanity to know about -- and that's where we have a differing opinion. But I believe, with the help of the elders, we can bridge that. That's my sense of it. As long as people have an open mind, we'll arrive at something that will work out for everyone."

For now, the Algonquin nation -- 10 separate communities on both sides of the Ottawa River with a total population of about 10,000 -- is preparing a response to the museum's proposal for radiocarbon testing on remains from the seven sites.

"Do we or don't we?" says Mr. Whiteduck. "I realize it takes very little of the bone, but that's another issue. And are they going to do that to say that these particular human remains are 5,000 years old and therefore you can't even access them? So we're being cautious."

Mr. Morrison points out that the museum has been working closely for several years with Mr. Whiteduck and others from Kitigan Zibi at the Lac Leamy archeological site in Gatineau.

That's why, he says, "this is a particularly painful scenario. With any First Nation we don't want to pick a fight. We want to co-operate with these guys and have a useful working relationship. I'm really trying to deal with this issue so that it doesn't destroy it."

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