Actions and Commitments

Call to Action # 67: Museums and Archives (67-70)

ROM returns Chief Poundmaker’s pipe and saddle bag back to family

February 22, 2023

Artifacts are returning back to Indigenous possession after more than 138 years

Toronto Star: Two important items of Chief Poundmaker’s are returning home after more than 138 years in non-Indigenous possession, winding up at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. The ROM hosted descendants of Poundmaker on Wednesday in a ceremony repatriating his pipe and saddle to the Poundmaker Cree Nation. 

Poundmaker, also known as Pihtokahanapiwiyin, was a prominent Plains Cree chief on the Prairies of what is now central Saskatchewan and Alberta in Treaty 6 territory. He is a signatory to the treaty.  Poundmaker was charged with treason for leading his warriors in the battle against Canadian Forces in the North-West Resistance of 1885 and sentenced to three years in prison at Stoney Mountain Penitentiary in Manitoba. 

His great-great granddaughter, Pauline Poundmaker, also known as Brown Bear Woman, who led the repatriation effort, said her ancestor was not an instigator of the resistance. He was released after only one year with poor health, dying shortly afterwards in his adopted father’s reserve of Siksika Nation in Alberta.

Plenty of Poundmaker’s possessions were either stolen, gifted or sold, eventually landing in various museums following his arrest in 1885.

In July 2017 the Canadian government loaned a few of his belongings to the Poundmaker Cree Nation museum located near Cut Knife, Sask. Both the Assembly of First Nations and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in Saskatchewan passed a resolution calling for Poundmaker’s exoneration. 

In 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau exonerated him, and said “It has taken us 134 years to reach today’s milestone — the exoneration of Chief Poundmaker.”

Pauline Poundmaker’s daughter Nikita Ashley-Poundmaker said she feels good after the repatriation ceremony.  “I feel seen. I feel heard. I feel respected,” said Ashley-Poundmaker. She explained how she also feels that curators at the ROM are starting to realize that her people “can take care of their own items.”

Pauline Poundmaker said the objective of having these artifacts in Battleford is “to make sure the artifacts are being cared for.” “Chief Poundmaker, pihtokahanapiwiyin, was one of the greatest nēhiyaw (Plains Cree) leaders of the 19th century,” said Pauline Poundmaker, and that “he was a strategic thinker who brought nations together and strove to protect the interests of the Cree during the negotiation of Treaty 6.” She described her grandfather as a humble and kind man. 

Valerie Huaco, Deputy Director of Collections & Research and Chief Innovation Officer, said, “This is the product of months and months and months of work, both on the part of museum employees, but also the Poundmaker Cree themselves to track down the objects, to work within their community, (and) to determine what the future should be for these ancestors.”

Huaco says she’s grateful and that it’s meaningful to collaborate and bring about a return to the community that’s going to value and benefit from the “objects.” The pipe was received by the ROM in 1936 after having been passed on to varying non-Indigenous keepers over the years. According to the donor, DR. G. H. Needler, Poundmaker himself presented the pipe to Dr. Robert Reddick in 1885.

Jaime Lavallee, SJD, is an assistant professor in Law at the University of Saskatchewan from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation is an expert in Indigenous artifact and ancestor repatriation. An expert in law, curation, and repatriation of Indigenous artifacts and ancestors, she worked with Indigenous nations throughout the United States in similar efforts. 

Lavallee said she saw “a lot of cultural revitalization” happen when items are returned to Indigenous nations, “because it’s within our control.” “If you read what’s in the museum, the words that they use to describe things aren’t necessarily our words,” Lavallee said, and explained how the language and approach museums use is not typically how Indigenous Peoples would interact with and describe sacred items.

“Sometimes things have had a life and a being, and they’re not just art,” Lavallee said. When they come back into Indigenous nations, Lavallee remarks that it’s a significant step forward in “having control of our culture.” “For so long, our culture has been seen as an obstacle, a barrier, a curiosity, something to be displayed and used,” Lavallee explained. Most museum legislation is “all talk about access, like acquiring things for the public good, though not necessarily being able to actually be accessing them to actually repatriate them.”

Lavallee said museums and those in power should have begun returning these items in 1951, explaining that “when they stopped banning our ceremonies, they didn’t go back out and give us back our items.” Lavallee said. 

Pauline Poundmaker says she wants this to be a good memory for all Indigenous Peoples, and she encourages families to begin their own processes of repatriation. “If we are, as a society, serious and committed to reconciliation, then one of the ways we can achieve that is through having nations become whole again.”

Jamin Mike is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach him via email: