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Pope’s willingness to return sacred items means they will come home: national chief

Much of the Vatican’s current collection is from a world exposition in 1925
Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald speaks during her closing address at the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly in Ottawa, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022. Archibald says the Pope’s willingness to return Indigenous artifacts stored at the Vatican Museum suggests the items will make their way home. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations says the Pope’s willingness to return artifacts stored at the Vatican Museum is another step forward on Indigenous Peoples’ journey with the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

“We asked for the return of our sacred items, and they will make their way home soon,” said Chief RoseAnne Archibald in a news release Monday.

Pope Francis said Sunday that talks were underway to return the artifacts. He was asked about the issue during a news conference on a flight back home from Hungary and said that “in the case where you can return things, where it’s necessary to make a gesture, better to do it.”

Much of the Vatican’s current collection is from a former pope who decided to hold a world exposition in 1925. A message went out at that time to missionaries around the globe to send items. More than 100,000 objects and works of art were displayed.

The Vatican has said parts of its collection were gifts to popes and the church.

Indigenous delegates who travelled to Rome to meet with Francis last year toured the Anima Mundi museum and requested the return of the items, which included ceremonial masks, wampum belts, embroidered gloves and headdresses. One item they saw was a rare kayak that the Inuvialuit Regional Corp. had already requested be returned.

Many objects were taken away from Indigenous people after the Canadian government outlawed cultural practices through the Indian Act in 1876. Ceremonial items and other important objects were seized, then sold, given to museums or destroyed.

Indigenous curators and experts have said they have been unable to get access to the unknown number of objects in the Vatican’s possession.

Francis said Sunday that the “restitution of the Indigenous things is underway with Canada — at least we agreed to do it.”

The pontiff travelled to Canada in July for a six-day tour, during which he apologized for church’s role in residential schools.

Archibald said returning the artifacts will mark another advancement after the apology and recognition that residential schools amounted to genocide.

She also pointed to the Vatican’s recent denunciation of the Doctrine of Discovery, which was used to legitimize the seizure of Indigenous land.

All the actions came after pressure and petition from Indigenous people, she noted.

“There are many other injustices that the Catholic Church must make right,” she said.

“We will not rest until our survivors and little ones who never made it home can have peace.”

—Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press

READ MORE: Pope voices willingness to return Indigenous loot, artifacts