Both Narcisse Blood and Ryan Heavy Head told us the stories of how when the European first arrived in Blackfoot traditional territory they were given a Beaver Bundle. I try to imagine the scene and the bafflement in the face of the Bundle recipient, receiving and opening this gift with dozens of animal skins and other objects. What would a European educated Christian aristocrat have made of this object with no point of reference as to how to interpret or use let alone make sense of the complex knowledge it contained. The Bundle was offered in generosity by the Blackfoot, as a way of showing the newcomers that if they were to be here to stay then they might as well have the knowledge of how to survive and how to enter into reciprocal relationships with the beings of this place. Needless to say, no meetings of minds did take place. The European settlers went on to exploit the land, decimate the buffalo, spread horrific disease such as smallpox (accidentally at the onset though with increasing intentionality as time passed) which killed the vast majority of First Nations peoples across not only Canada but all the Americas. The settlers also introduced new crops and animals to the grasslands (eradicating much of the original prairie grasslands) and removed the Blackfoot from their land, isolating them onto reservations that were a fraction of their traditional territory. The government then passed the Indian Act in 1885 which prohibited the Blackfoot from leaving the reserves without a pass, outlawed their ceremonies and introduced residential schools.
Beaver Bundles, according to Ryan and Narcisse, were also targeted by missionaries who recognised these as a central part of Blackfoot spirituality. The Bundles found their way into the hands of various collectors, eventually being acquired by a number of museums such as the Peabody, in Harvard University, or the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton. It is only in the last three or four decades that a process of cultural rejuvenation and healing has begun in First Nations communities. An important part of this has been the movement of repatriation, of their children from adoptive homes and from the legacy of residential schooling, and of cultural and religious artefacts housed in collections throughout the world. Ryan’s involvement with the Bundle started in this way, through the repatriation of the Bundle from the Peabody Museum (see the museum’s repatriation announcement).
On several occasions in conversations with both Ryan and Narcisse the concept of ‘dead knowledge’ came up. This sometimes emerged in reference to traditional museum practices and their treatment of objects which are removed from their connection to people and ceremony and instead rendered as things for contemplation, as examples of the past (see also ‘Everything was Carved’, the film I made about the Haida, from British Columbia, and their interaction with the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford). Instead for the Blackfoot objects such as the Beaver Bundle is considered as a living entity to be treated with respect and, as written previously, are intrinsically woven into to a tapestry of ceremonies, songs, dance and ecological-spiritual knowledge. The Anthropology Museum in Vancouver which we visited has engaged with this issue in a creative way by housing the objects in their museum but allowing them to be used in ceremonies by the communities they belong to (see the blog entry on this which is to come).
Ryan also referred to how nature is often regarded in the disciplines of ecology, zoology, and by nature reserves and parks, as a manifestation of this deadening knowledge that removes the objects it studies (or preserves) from the world placing them in a realm that precludes human interaction and first person experience. In opposition to this approach to knowing, an aspect of the knowledge and learning that is encouraged at Red Crow appears to revolve around the development of relationships through the process of knowing. This knowing entails a deep process that when students learn a place they do so not from a distance but rather through an intimate connection with it.