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Haudenosaunee Confederacy retrieves sacred objects from Geneva museum

February 16, 2023

Medicine mask, turtle rattle were in museum’s possession for almost 200 years

The restitution ceremony took place on Feb. 7 at the Musée d’ethnographie de Genève (MEG). Due to the sacredness of the objects, they are in a closed box and cannot be photographed. (Chiara Cosenza/MEG)

CBC News: After almost 200 years sitting in Switzerland museums, two sacred objects belonging to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy have returned home from overseas.

A delegation from the Haudenosaunee External Relations Committee travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, last week to retrieve a medicine mask and turtle rattle from the Musée d’ethnographie de Genève (MEG).] “It was like the mask was sleeping for 200 years and the mask is now coming back awake,” said Kenneth Deer, who is Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) from Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal, and was a part of the delegation.

The Haudenosaunee, who include the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Kanien’kehá:ka and Tuscarora Nations and live on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, view medicine masks as living beings. 

Kenneth Deer at the Mohawk Nation longhouse in Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal.
Kenneth Deer accompanied the mask and rattle back home from Geneva. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

“We have to treat it that way and we don’t look at it as a decoration, something to decorate your wall with,” said Deer. “You wouldn’t treat your brother by hanging them on the wall in a museum.”

The museum held a public ceremony to hand over the mask and a turtle rattle on Feb. 7. It coincided with the start of a year-long list of activities to commemorate the centenary of the arrival of Deskaheh in Geneva.

Deskaheh, a Cayuga chief, tried to lobby for international recognition of the Haudenosaunee as a sovereign nation but in 1923 was refused the right to address the assembly floor of the League of Nations, precursor to the United Nations. Before he returned to Canada, the mayor of Geneva invited him to give a speech in front of the people of the city. 

We know that the first thing that Indigenous peoples are asking is to be considered as sovereign, so we want to acknowledge this as well,” said MEG director Carine Ayélé Durand. There is happiness to know they’re home. At the same time a sense of loss as well from our point of view, which is not a bad loss.”

Musée d'ethnographie de Genève (MEG) director Carine Ayélé Durand and Haudenosaunee External Relations Committee member Kenneth Deer holding cornhusk dolls.
Musée d’ethnographie de Genève (MEG) director Carine Ayélé Durand and Haudenosaunee External Relations Committee member Kenneth Deer hold cornhusk dolls during the ceremony to repatriate a medicine mask and turtle rattle. The cornhusk dolls were gifted to the museum as something that can be displayed.  (Chiara Cosenza/MEG)

However, Durand said it was important for the museum to take a proactive approach.  “Sometimes I realize that museum professionals don’t even know that some objects are sacred or sensitive,” she said. “One way of being proactive would be to get in contact [with] Indigenous organizations and then ask them to help, assist in reviewing their collections.”

Call for repatriation 

In 1995, the Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee issued a policy statement on medicine masks, banning their use for commercial purposes and public exhibition, including photographing them. It also called for the return of all masks from private collectors, museums, galleries, universities and other institutions. “We’ve had hundreds if not thousands returned already but I know there’s probably just as much still out there,” said Brennen Ferguson, a member of the Tuscarora Nation and one of the other delegates.

Members of the Haudenosaunee External Relations Committee Kenneth Deer, Brennen Ferguson and Clayton Logan at the Musée d'ethnographie de Genève (MEG).
Members of the Haudenosaunee External Relations Committee Kenneth Deer, Brennen Ferguson and Clayton Logan were at the Musée d’ethnographie de Genève (MEG) last week to retrieve the mask and rattle. (Saskia Maye/MEG)

Ferguson spotted the mask on display during a visit to the MEG in July 2022, and immediately contacted the museum’s leadership. “It was pretty sad. It’s like you’re seeing a person that’s been neglected,” he said about seeing the mask. “We understand that we have a responsibility to take care of these things and to strengthen them through ceremony.”

7-month process

Swiss historian and politician Amédée-Pierre-Jules Pictet de Sergy donated the mask and a turtle rattle to the museum’s predecessor in 1825. It is unknown how they came into his possession. 

After it was contacted, the museum quickly removed the mask and rattle from display, a ceremony was held, and they were safely tucked into storage until the official request for repatriation was made. The management of the MEG and the City of Geneva’s department of culture and digital transition quickly approved handing over the objects. From start to finish, the process took seven months for the items to be returned to Canada.

Brennen Ferguson at the city of Geneva's tree of peace planting on Feb. 10, 2023.
Brennen Ferguson at the city of Geneva’s tree of peace planting on Feb. 10, 2023. (Anna Pizzolante/Ville de Genève)

Both Ferguson and Deer said the museum and city’s swift response and co-operation is an example other institutions should follow.  “It kind of highlighted to me when you’re dealing with people that are respectful, how easy this can be,” said Ferguson.

Now that the sacred items are back home, the delegation said they’ll be returned to ceremonial use.


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer

Journalist, Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.