Approaching the human rights stories of Indigenous peoples

By Karine Duhamel
Published: December 14, 2016

A closeup of a carved wooden box, showing the carved face of a person against a white background. Partially obscured.

Photo: CMHR, Aaron Cohen

Story text

This article focuses on the creation and development of exhibition content exploring the human rights stories of Indigenous people in this country. To tell these stories, the Museum engaged with communities and individuals in a process of truth‐telling.

In my last article, I discussed what I like to call the “nuts and bolts of reconciliation” – the way that the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) has sought to host public performances and offer programs focused on the concept of sharing difficult truths about the treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

From the outset of CMHR’s research, the framework for Indigenous content development at the Museum was conceived as being a decolonizing one. What does that mean? Essentially, researchers and curators drew from an important task force report from 1992.* In that report, the Assembly of First Nations and the Canadian Museums Association produced a series of recommendations centred on Indigenous representation and participation in museums. The task force recommended increased involvement of Indigenous peoples in discussions at and around museums; the repatriation, or return, of sacred, cultural or other important objects stolen or taken from First Nations communities; improved access to museum spaces for Indigenous people; increased agency and voice within a museum for Indigenous people in the representation of their stories; and finally, increased training for curators and funding for museums to achieve these goals.

Putting these principles into action meant several things for the research team. First, collaboration with communities and individuals is an important component of our approach. David Gordon Thomas, whose circle element graces Bonnie & John Buhler Hall; Rebecca Belmore, whose “Trace” piece connects the Museum to this land; the National Association of Friendship Centres, which collaborated with us in the development and production of spirit panels, working with youth and artists – these individuals and groups have all contributed to the development of a vision. The results of these collaborations are important: exhibits such as the acknowledgement of ancestral lands in Bonnie & John Buhler Hall, for instance, feature the deliberate choice of language in acknowledging that “the land beneath this museum has always been, and will continue to be, home to Indigenous peoples.” This inclusive language allows us to acknowledge that this land has been significant to many Indigenous nations who have lived, worked, traded and held ceremony with and on the land. This language was arrived upon only after a process of engagement, and is an important part of the respect paid to people who participated in these collaborations.

Second, the Museum has ensured that Indigenous content is featured in every gallery. This is deliberate; it is meant to make sure that Indigenous content – stories about colonial violations by the state and about Indigenous nations’ defense of their rights – are not isolated to one gallery or corner of the Museum. Instead, we include content about Indigenous rights in every gallery as a way of prioritizing it. Jaime Black’s REDress Project, curated by the artist herself, calls attention to the continuing issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and is situated prominently in the Canadian Journeys gallery. The alcove about the history and the future of the Métis nation, curated by Sherry Farrell‐Racette, includes artwork from Christi Belcourt and was achieved through a process of community collaboration and curation. This gallery also features stories about language rights, forced relocations, Indigenous education, First Nations women’s rights, health and community wellness, and about changing lives and environments of the North – stories which appear alongside other historical periods in Canada. In this and other galleries, Indigenous stories are told through digital interactives, films, artefacts, works of art and music. The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) is examined in our Inspiring Change gallery and elsewhere, which is augmented by school‐based programs about residential schools and reconciliation.

Third, Indigenous voices and worldviews are expressed prominently. From the Mikinak‐Keya Spirit tour, which a group of Elders presented as a gift to the Museum, to the Indigenous Perspectives gallery, which aims to give visitors an understanding of Indigenous perspectives on rights before they encounter violations, we prioritize the need for people to tell their own stories, in their own words. In this way, the CMHR engages with storytellers and with communities to represent knowledge and experiences in the way that the people would want them shared, and presented.

Finally, and crucially for the purposes of engaging conversations about redress and reconciliation, the CMHR also ensures that Indigenous rights violations are presented as a shared history of all Canadians. In other words, the legacy of residential schools, which includes the Sixties Scoop and continuing high rates of child apprehension, should not be viewed as an Indigenous problem, or as Indigenous history. These violations are a part of our shared history, and need to be known and understood by all Canadians and not only by the people who have lived through them. While the Museum may struggle to adequately convey the depth or breadth of what has been lost, it is important for us, in our approach to content, to ensure that visitors are able to see the history of colonization and its damaging consequences that have been key in the building of Canada.

Only once Canadians acknowledge this historical burden and ongoing violations in the present, can they begin to think about what is required today, to provide redress for the past and a plan for the future.

Telling these stories at the Museum has resulted in a wide range of visitor responses. Some people are learning about the extent of these human rights violations for the first time and are deeply touched by the interviews, historical photographs and documents in the exhibitions. Others are concerned that the Museum’s effort to integrate Indigenous content in all galleries minimizes the trauma of the total experience of colonialism. As a curator, I hear all of these responses and accept them with humility.

More importantly, this feedback offers the opportunity for me to consider how we might communicate these stories in different ways in the future. Hosting The Witness Blanket exhibition, for example, provided the Museum with a way to tell the Indian Residential School story through the eyes of master carver Carey Newman, of Kwagiulth, Salish and British descent. The inspiration for this project began with Carey’s father, who had attended a residential school. Woven into the blanket are contributions from residential school survivors, their families, friendship centres, as well as churches and other agencies that had a hand in the administration of this system. As visitors viewed and interacted with the blanket, they bore witness to these truths. Commissioned by the TRC, this exhibition truly honoured these experiences and had an important impact on all visitors.

The Museum is a place for dialogue, but it is also a place to have frank, honest conversations about human rights and, from that, engage in important actions. We know that we need to strive to do better and important issues remain that will require honesty, humility and hard work to address. We are ready, we are willing, and we are able.

Task Force Report on Museums and First Peoples. A Report jointly sponsored by the Assembly of First Nations and the Canadian Museums Association, 1992.

Suggested citation

Suggested citation : Karine Duhamel. “Approaching the human rights stories of Indigenous peoples.” Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Published December 14, 2016.