Jean-Paul Baillargeon, editor - The Handing Down of Culture, Smaller Societies and Globalization


Fast Forward to Modern Pluralism:
Culture and Small Scale Societies in Canada

Joy Cohnstaedt*


Over the past century, the study of the diverse arts and material culture of Aboriginal peoples — Inuit, First Nations, and later Métis (those of mixed heritage) — has attracted the growing attention of artists and academics. The arts and material culture have provoked many questions. Who created the works? Why were they made? What meanings do they convey? Are they to be exhibited? Who is to interpret them? Present-day practice raises still more questions about, for example, assimilation, appropriation and repatriation. This paper examines the research, production and collection/exhibition customs related to indigenous cultures over the past five decades in order to place them in the context of contemporary issues and practice. It also considers the implications of those customs for cultural policy-making in the 21st century. The paper will draw on participant/observer experience in the Eastern Arctic, archeological practice in the plains culture area as well as experience with Canadian cultural policy-making and practice.


Four decades ago, beginning in the spring and lasting until just before the first snow in October, I could be found on weekends, walking on windswept prairie hills and plains in and near the Qu’Appelle Valley and elsewhere in southern Saskatchewan, looking for evidence of long past habitation. We were a small group of young and older enthusiasts, all members of the Saskatchewan Archaeological Association, led by two dedicated amateur archaeologists, John and Jean Hodges. We sought to supplement the effort of the few professionals working in the field — in particular Thomas and Alice Kehoe — archaeologists with the provincial Museum of Natural History. Together, but somewhat in competition, we planned to document early occupation before all physical and ethnological evidence disappeared (A part of the challenge of the Hodges was to prove that the First Nations peoples occupying these lands produced and used pottery; some professionals argued otherwise). Approval to search on these lands was given by farmers, who themselves had extensive collections of artefacts, which more often than not, were without documentation except for the family’s own oral history. And there was a growing and disturbing marketplace for artefacts that kept important items in private hands.

The walks were lonely, as our heads always faced downward. From time to time, evidence emerged of temporary settlements, a simple cairn was found or a projectile point that had been turned up by ploughs. Tipi rings, evidence of earlier habitation, once numbered in the thousands, were by now becoming increasingly rare because of modern agricultural practices and vandalism. When boulder-outlined figures of men and animals were found, the site took on new meaning. When these mute monuments of past cultures (cairns, medicine wheels, or effigies) had been originally constructed on a site overlooking the distant horizon, the power of the place and its view must have been, and still is, breath taking. In the winter we spent weekends documenting our findings, and reconstructing the pottery shards into pots and thus began to define their common features. Finally, we joined forces to dig the Last Mountain House trading post. We were part of the heritage and museum community’s lack of appreciation of the need to include indigenous peoples in our work. For example, after many years on public view (and later in storage) in the Saskatchewan Museum of Natural History, it took a very public protest by First Nations to ensure that the remains of a child were returned to his/her community and buried according to traditional practices.

Chapter 16, continued >


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