The Anima Mundi Museum at the Vatican in Rome (via Wikimedia)

First Nations and Indigenous leaders are calling for Indigenous works held at the Vatican to be repatriated ahead of Pope Francis’s July 24 trip to Canada.

Many of the tens of thousands of objects arrived in Rome for the Church’s vast 1925 Pontifical Missionary Exposition. Missionaries stationed around the world sent in over 100,000 pieces for display, and after the show closed in 1926, the Vatican selected 40,000 among them to keep — “a gift from the peoples of the world to the Pontiffs,” according to the Vatican — and established the Missionary Ethnological Museum (now called the Anima Mundi Museum). Older works that the Church already held were incorporated into the museum, including pre-Columbian artifacts gifted to Pope Innocent XII in 1692. Today, the Anima Mundi Museum holds over 80,000 objects.

Some of those objects belong to Indigenous people in today’s Canada, who have a tortured history with the Catholic Church. Starting in the late 19th century and continuing into the late 20th century, more than 150,000 Indigenous children across Canada were sent to “residential schools” as part of a state-funded and church-run program that sought to strip Indigenous communities of their cultures and traditions and forcibly assimilate them into White culture. The last of these schools closed in 1996, and in 2021, first 215, and then 751, unmarked graves of mostly children were discovered, with more found this year. Thousands of children are thought to have died in the schools, where physical and sexual abuse were rampant.

The Catholic Church led around 70% of these residential schools. According to historian Gloria Bell, whose current work focuses on the exhibition of Indigenous objects from Canad in early 20th-century Italy, some of the objects sent to the Vatican for its 1925 exhibition were made by children at residential schools as souvenirs for the missionaries.

In late March, Pope Francis met with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit leaders at the Vatican to discuss the Catholic Church’s role in the schools, and after the week-long talks, the pope issued an apology. “For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask forgiveness of the Lord,” he said.

In Canada, $4.7 billion has been paid in reparations to survivors of the schools. The Canadian federal government shelled out most of the funds and the Protestant church paid $9.2 million, but the Catholic Church supplied only $1.2 million (a fraction of the $25 million it was initially supposed to raise for reparations).

Now, Indigenous leaders are asking for their cultural heritage to be returned. During the spring visit to the Vatican, delegates were given a special tour of the Anima Mundi Museum and shown some of the objects in the Vatican’s collection. The subject of repatriation came up in discussions with the pope.

In an interview, Phil Fontaine of the Sagkeeng First Nation, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), called for immediate action. “My view is that we should sit down with Church officials and begin discussions about repatriation,” he said.

One of the objects on display during the tour was a wood and sealskin kayak from the Inuvialuit people of northern Canada, sent to the Vatican in 1924. Inuvialuit leaders had already asked for the immediate return of the kayak in December, and the Vatican expressed its intent to comply. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) told Radio Canada CBC that it would be willing to assist in mediating that conversation with the Vatican.

The Vatican has not responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.

On July 24, Pope Francis will arrive in Canada to issue an in-person apology for the abuses that took place at the residential schools, and pressure for the Vatican to begin the repatriation process is mounting. But no firm plan for discussions has been set.

“For so long we had to hide who we were,” President of the Métis National Council Cassidy Caron told the Associated Press. “We had to hide our culture and hide our traditions to keep our people safe. Right now, in this time when we can publicly be proud to be Métis, we are reclaiming who we are. And these pieces, these historic pieces, they tell stories of who we were.”

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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