'Things can come home again': Sacred birch bark scroll to return to White Earth Nation

Signs welcome visitors to White Earth, on the White Earth Reservation.
Signs welcome visitors to the White Earth Nation in northwestern Minnesota, home to the White Earth Band of Ojibwe.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News 2017

Each week, Jaime Arsenault scans online auction sites for important items that belong to the Ojibwe people.

Sometimes, listed among the more common utilitarian and artisan objects like beadwork or tools that often show up for auction, she finds something significant. Sometimes, a vital piece of Ojibwe culture that had disappeared decades ago into private collections surfaces, just for a moment, before disappearing once more.

In her weekly scans, Arsenault hopes to identify those items, and find a way to return them.

Earlier this month, a birch bark scroll that Ojibwe people consider among their most important cultural items appeared on a Boston auction house’s sale list.

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Arsenault missed it.

"But luckily,” she said, “there was someone else that that noticed and did the right thing and contacted us.”

Birch bark scrolls often document the migration story of Anishinaabe people, or as is the case with this scroll, hold information about spiritual ceremony. An unknown number are held by private collectors, or in museums.

Arsenault, the historic preservation officer for the White Earth Nation, contacted the auction house, Skinner Auctioneers, to ask if the scroll could be returned to the tribe.

As often happens, she was told that if she wanted the item, she could bid in the auction.

But most tribes don’t want to get into a bidding war over their own history.

"It's kind of an ethical thing that a lot of tribes face,” said Arsenault. “There are cultural materials taken from your community. Should you have to pay to get them back?"

This scroll will be returned to the White Earth Nation after being held privately for decades. Experts say it's a small success in what is a constant struggle to find and reclaim culturally significant elements from generations of systematic attempts at erasure.

Arsenault doesn't know the story of how this particular scroll was lost. Such items commonly disappeared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period when tribes were losing their land; when their children were being sent to boarding schools; and when their Midewewin religious practices were a federal crime — which lasted until the 1970s.

"It could have been that they were removed by force. It could have been that [giving up the scrolls] was the only way a family could secure food rations. It could have been, you know, ‘Hand this over, or your child goes to boarding school,’" said Arsenault.

“People don’t part with something that is of that significance willingly.”

‘I can’t think of a document that would mean more’

When Shawon Kinew, an assistant professor of the history of art and architecture at Harvard, heard about the scroll, she emailed the Skinner auction house, asking for it to be returned.

"Really, what was happening was genocide," Kinew said of the period during which so many sacred items were taken. "Part of that genocide is, of course, cultural. It's taking our things away from us. It's making it impossible for us to practice our ways, to live our ways, to live as Anishinaabeg.”

Kinew, a member of the Ojibways of Onigaming First Nation in Ontario, was among dozens of people who contacted the auction house about returning the scroll.

David Chang, chair of the American Indian Studies Department at the University of Minnesota, started an email chain, asking a few contacts to do the same.

The response spread far beyond his initial efforts.

Chang said he thinks the energy directed at saving this scroll is partially due to growing awareness about the politics and impacts of colonialism and racism — and how they relate to historical objects.

“The way that sacred items were taken is just as important as the way that land was taken and the way that children were forced to go to boarding schools,” said Chang. “The amount of coercion, the amount of outright theft, the amount of dishonesty, is horrifying. And so, to think about anyone from outside the community having rightful ownership to it is really questionable to me.”

Many collectors don’t realize the cultural significance of the items they buy, according to an expert in the field, who said people often believe they are collecting part of a past culture.

"But that's not the case at all. That's one of the incredible things,” said Kinew. “The Midewewin is still alive, the birch bark scrolls are still used, our ancestors are still speaking directly to us through items like this.”

A birch bark scroll is among the most treasured items Arsenault might locate in her weekly searches.

“I think that different treaties that have been signed, and these scrolls, are the two most critical tangible pieces of instructions and responsibilities and protections and help that [exist],” she said.

They’re so significant that it’s hard to put their value into words. “I can’t think of a document that would mean more,” she said.

‘It’s a wonderful moment’

While a federal law — the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act — requires museums and universities to return human remains and culturally significant items to tribes, it doesn’t apply to private collections. And the process of repatriation can take years.

Arsenault thinks this small victory points to the need for more protection, and more help for tribes that are trying to reclaim important items with, in many cases, limited resources.

The Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act, a bill currently making its way through Congress, would prohibit the export of sacred Native American items to collectors in other countries. It would increase penalties for stealing and illegally trafficking items, and would establish a framework for the voluntary return of significant items.

But identifying those culturally significant items among the thousands of utilitarian and artisanal objects sold at auction every year, is part of the challenge. Sean Blanchet, who co-owns Revere Auctions in St. Paul, said auction houses need to do more to identify sacred items when they appear on lists for sale.

“It's important to understand that this does not represent even 1 percent of the objects that come to market currently in auction houses, and that are bought and sold by collectors of Native American art and artifacts,” he said. “This is a very, very small slice of those objects.”

Revere Auctions, Blanchet said, has established a policy that requires all Native American items to be reviewed by experts before they are sold.

"As it stands in the United States, there's no consistent methodology yet as to how to handle these objects,” he said. “They are all lumped into one category and treated as, essentially, goods in the free market."

But by ensuring that culturally significant items are identified by tribes, Blanchet said, buyers can have more confidence they are purchasing items that are appropriate to collect. He thinks having such a policy has actually helped his business.

Last week, on the day the birch bark scroll was set to be sold, it was removed from the list of items for sale, something that rarely happens.

When he found out about the scroll’s presence on the list, Blanchet had begun negotiating to buy it directly and return it to the White Earth Nation, offering the top assessed value of about $2,500.

Late last week, the seller agreed. And Blanchet said that, so far, more than 20 people have stepped forward, offering to help pay for the scroll.

Skinner Auctioneers declined an interview request, but said in a statement that the company stands “alongside all Indigenous peoples' rights claims, and we evaluate each on a case by case basis. In this particular instance, we were able to work to develop a solution to address and satisfy all those involved.”

Jaime Arsenault is looking forward to the moment when she can pick up the scroll and return it to White Earth.

"It's a beautiful thing,” she said. “It's a wonderful moment. There's a lot of relief."

Each time a piece of Anishinaabe culture is returned, she said, it provides a small bit of communal healing in a story filled with trauma.

"A lot of times, that story is, you know, ‘…and then this was taken away, and then this was taken away, and then we lost this, and then that happened,’” said Arsenault. “But what if the story didn't have to end there?”

Arsenault said she’ll keep scanning the auction listings.

“I always look for those opportunities where we don't have to end that way,” she said. “Things can come home again."

She knows there are still many valued items that need to come home.