RRFN reburies ancestors, sacred objects

Sam Odrowski

Excavations at ancient burial mounds from the 1950s to 1970s have caused anxiety and a sense of disrespect in a local Ojibwe community.

The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) dug up artifacts and the remains of ancestors who were in burial mounds dating back roughly 1,000 years at Rainy River First Nations (RRFN) which left a hole in the community–until now.

This past Friday approximately 60 to 100 remains and around 5,000 artifacts were reburied into a new burial mound on the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung grounds and amends were made for the way they were disrespected.

“It’s a huge sense of relief to have those ancestors, who have been gone for 50, 60 years now, returned home,” noted RRFN Chief Robin McGinnis.

Coun. Sonny McGinnis said they’re filling a void that has existed since their ancestors were taken by Walter Kenyon, who was a curator for the ROM at the time.

“I think among the people themselves there was concern that we have to bring them home . . . and we were finally able to do that.”

For around 25 years the chiefs of RRFN have tried to return the ancestors, but only in the last three years was the ROM able to facilitate that process.

Former RRFN chief Jim Leonard said the ROM’s curator Craig Cipolla has been instrumental in the return of the ancestors and artifacts to the First Nation.

Cipolla has categorized and catalogued the sacred objects that were displaced to ensure they could be returned to RRFN, since starting with the ROM in September 2016.

As a curator of North American archaeology, Friday’s reburial was Cipolla’s first, but he is involved in multiple reparations at the moment and anticipates he will attend more in the future as other ancestors and sacred artifacts are returned to their home communities.

“This is a step in the right direction,” he said. “It feels good to get them back where they need to be and where they go.”

“I also hope to emphasize that I think the relationship between the RRFN and the ROM is an ongoing thing that continues on beyond this one thing,” Cipolla added.

“The last thing I want to see . . . is for repatriation in general to be a one-time, transactional kind of a thing,”

In order to overcome some of the wrongs institutions such as the ROM have committed in the past, continuing the dialogue with multiple voices and different perspectives is an important process, according to Cipolla.

“If it was up to me it wouldn’t be the end point, it’s just sort of the beginning point of continuing to work together in some way . . . perhaps co-curating stuff for the public about that history, about the archaeology, or even co-authoring material on just what this process of repatriation is and how it worked,” he explained.

Cipolla stressed the importance of projects like this being community led, regardless of if it goes against the conventions of the museum or archaeology as a discipline.

“It’s okay to sacrifice those things-it’s about what the community wants and how the community wants to do it to sort of try to correct big problems with the way things have been treated in the past.”

Coun. Leona McGinnis attended the Shaking Tent Ceremony prior to the reparation and reburial of ancestors and sacred objects to receive direction on the best way to honour the spirits who were disturbed from their place of rest.

The ceremony was held in the RRFN Roundhouse and led by elder Louis Councillor along with his helper Tommy Councillor who taught Coun. Leona McGinnis the proper protocol for the reburial.

The day of reparations involved a feast and sharing the feast with the spirits who were disrespected, a speech from an elder to amend the wrongs that were done to RRFN, and reburying the sacred objects with honour.

“I actually remember the person who did this, I was a child and I was under the age of 12 probably when this was going on, and I’m 68 now,” Coun. Leona McGinnis recalled.

“As a child I thought it was wrong, ‘why are people digging up graves and digging up dead people?’ and I always wondered about it all these years, ‘where are they?'”

Coun. Leona McGinnis stressed that RRFN is not responsible for what was done to the remains and are just correcting the wrongs that have been done to RRFN.

She told the Times she is happy to see the ancestors returned home.

Students from Donald Young School, Our Lady of the Way, and Fort High were in attendance for the reburial, along with community leaders, area chiefs, and elders.

Chief McGinnis said it’s important to have the students in attendance to understand the significance of what happened.

The Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung grounds, meanwhile, is a historical site, dating back 2,500 years and has the largest concentration of burial mounds in Canada.

As many as 5,000 people would gather in the area to trade and fish sturgeon in the summertime.

“They came from all over the region, we found copper that originated from the Yukon, we found shells that came from Florida, California,” said Leonard.

“There’s plants that grow here, that are only native to places like Kentucky.”

He said people brought seeds from their home communities as offerings and it’s incredible that individuals travelled from such great distances to trade on the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung grounds.

It now acts as a Historical Centre that the public can visit to learn about the sacred burial mounds and the area’s history.