Since the first European sea captains arrived in the Pacific Northwest in the 1700s, collectors have appreciated the beauty and quality of First Nations tools, textiles, masks and other carvings. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many things made by Snuneymuxw people became part of museum collections in Canada, Europe and the United States. These objects are part of anthropological collections that include ancient archaeological materials excavated from specific sites and ethnographic materials, which came from the Snuneymuxw community.
European museums with Snuneymuxw items include the Ethnographic Museum in Berlin and the British Museum in London. In the United States, the Field Museum in Chicago, the Smithsonian Institute (National Museum of the American Indian and National Museum of Natural History) in Washington D.C. and the Burke Museum in Seattle have Snuneymuxw objects in their collections. In Canada, the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and the Nanaimo District Museum have various archaeological and ethnographic collections with items that came from the Nanaimo region.
As the Snuneymuxw look to the traditions of their Ancestors and their Elders and learn about objects from their past, they have discussions with museums regarding the return of collections to their community. This return of museum collections and information to communities is sometimes referred to as repatriation. The term repatriation can also refer to the return of human remains to a final resting place. Depending on the First Nations and the museums involved, as well as on the countries they are working in, the return of First Nations materials may take different forms. This can include loans and sharing of information and objects between museums and communities.
In Canada, special sections of treaty negotiations can deal with the collections in the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Parks Canada and the Royal BC Museum through the formal Treaty Negotiation Process. These treaties can create agreements for the formal sharing of objects through the transfer of title of collections. The treaty can also include an agreement regarding loans of objects.
Treaties also include conditions so that custodial agreements can be negotiated. Custodial agreements stipulate how the objects that will remain in the museums are to be stored, accessed and interpreted. Through treaties, parts of the museums’ collections are legally and physically transferred to First Nations. The Nisga’a Lisims Government is currently planning a museum in one of their communities. Nisga’a collections at the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Royal BC Museum will be transferred to the new museum in the future.