Learning from the Ancestors, Strengthening Cultural Identity: The Blackfoot Shirts Project
In a project led by Professor Laura Peers, five historic Blackfoot First Nations hide shirts held in the Pitt Rivers Museum (PRM) since 1893 were lent to two museums in Alberta, Canada, to promote cross-cultural exchange of knowledge. Under historic assimilation policies (1885-1970), most heritage objects had been removed from Blackfoot communities to museums, contributing to the destabilization of Blackfoot cultural identity and poor mental and physical health typical of indigenous populations. For the first time in a century over 500 Blackfoot people were able to handle objects made before the assimilation era. This provoked the sharing of cultural knowledge within the Blackfoot community, led to improved self-esteem, and intensified interest and pride in cultural identity. In exchange, Blackfoot people shared cultural knowledge about the shirts with museum professionals from all UK museums with significant Blackfoot collections, trained them in new approaches to museology, and co-curated exhibitions sharing Blackfoot perspectives in Alberta and Oxford reaching over 50,000 people.
“It was like a life-changing event… made me want to further my education, and to research First Nations archives and I may someday be the head of a First Nations museum!” (follow-up interview with college student, handling session participant).
This project provided the first community contact in a century with iconic heritage objects; globally, it was only the second project involving the handling of fragile historical museum objects by large numbers of people. Research findings are therefore entirely new and constitute a baseline for further studies.
Trina and Josh, Blackfoot participants in the Blackfoot shirts project, examine one of the ancestral shirts at the Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta. Photograph Owen Melenka
Two major findings emerged. First, the stimulus of touch, the sense of being in the presence of the ancestors who made the shirts, and the sociality of the handling sessions was therapeutic on several levels for Blackfoot participant, and strengthened identity and culture by provoking the transmission of cultural knowledge amongst participants. Second, while established handling projects in museums, hospitals, and old-age homes use reproductions, or less fragile objects, the research indicated that it is possible to facilitate the use of fragile historic objects in certain situations—and worthwhile to do so given the potential for museum objects to act as catalysts for postcolonial social healing in indigenous communities.
Through these opportunities, Blackfoot knowledge, culture, and perspectives were shared with museum staff and public audiences, resulting in considerable impacts, including the development of new techniques for the conservation of porcupine quills and hide in preparing fragile objects for handling; and the development of new ways of facilitating handling sessions with fragile objects.
Research was funded by the AHRC, the American Anthropological Association, and the Council on Museum Anthropology, Michael Ames Prize for Innovative Anthropology.