First Nations, Metis artifacts come home in exhibit
EDMONTON - Willard Ahenakew spent seven years helping to write and research a book about the Ahtahkakoop First Nation, including as much information as possible about his great-great-grandfather's brother, Napeskis.
But when he walked into a new exhibit at the Royal Alberta Museum, that portion of Ahenakew's history - and a connection to Napeskis - felt real.
"To me, it's a living history, it's come home," said Ahenakew, surveying the new collection of 33 aboriginal and Metis artifacts, which opens to the public Saturday.
"When I first walked in that door (Thursday morning), I was choked up."
The collection includes material of Blackfoot, Cree, Iroquois, Metis and Nakota origin.
The items were collected by James Carnegie, the ninth Earl of Southesk, during a nine-month trip between present-day Winnipeg and the eastern slopes of the Rockies during 1859-1860.
The earl was "quite a character," according to Susan Berry, the museum's curator of ethnology.
Carnegie travelled the country in style, lugging along a complete collection of Shakespeare's works and a portable bathtub, she said.
"He's sometimes called the first tourist to the Canadian Rockies, because he really was here on a pleasure trip," she said, laughing.
She said he had "a real eye for beauty" and bought and traded for many of the artifacts, including a Blackfoot dress made of mountain sheep's skin, a beaded Plains Cree pad saddle and a finger-woven Metis sash.
Many are in pristine condition since they've been kept in storage at a Scottish castle, said Berry. The museum bought the items at auction last year with just over $1 million from the federal government, the Alberta government and museum funds. Letters of support from First Nations and Metis representatives helped secure the funding.
Such a collection is rare in North America, Berry said.
"Not all that many (artifacts) have survived, and those that have are predominantly in collections in European museums."
Carnegie kept a journal of his travels through Canada, and published a book 15 years after his return home. Since the artifacts arrived last summer, researchers have developed a "healthy obsession" with trying to unravel the mysteries of who, what and when behind each and every one, Berry said.
For example, one of four pairs of slippers was embroidered with a Scottish thistle, which was not a common symbol in Metis art at the time. Since the earl had four children but just one son, researchers imagined that pair could be have been commissioned for the heir.
"There was a very strong base of evidence that had to be provided in the journal, but we had to do some more research in order to really kind of figure out what that meant, and who these people really were," she said.
They also worked with aboriginal groups. Francis Alexis of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, for example, helped provide insights into what the pattern on one object might represent.
Such artifacts also help to tell an important story for First Nations and Metis people who have lost much of the oral history of that time, said Ahenakew.
"Before the treaties, nobody in our tribe was recording anything," he said. "There's still a lot of blanks."
It's extremely emotional for him to see the objects and to know that his ancestor was involved with the earl, that he may have touched the slippers, or helped guide him to one of destinations, said Ahenakew.
"We now have another part of our history that's come home - all of us, I'm not just talking First Nations, but all Canadians," he said.
"And I guess, really, the learning is just starting."