Museum Rescues Rare Indian Artifacts

By Clint Buehler

EDMONTON – The Royal Alberta Museum has successfully rescued the bulk of a collection of rare Indian artifacts gathered by an eccentric Scottish earl, the 9th Earl of Southesk.

The success of the RAM’s curatorial staff’s mission was made possible by the solid support and fast action of Aboriginal leaders, other Canadian museums and federal and provincial funding agencies.

Rather than going to private collectors where it was feared they would be scattered to different destinations and inaccessible, most of those artifacts will now b e available for viewing and research at the museum.

Metis and First Nations leaders and Canadian museums staff were aghast at the potential loss of access to the rare collection if it went to private collectors.

When word of the sale first surfaced, opposition and concern was swift in coming.

American Indian Movement spokesperson Vernon Bellcourt compared the sale to “selling gold teeth from Auschwitz,” and vowed to have the artifacts returned to the appropriate tribes of the Northern Plains of Canada and the U.S.

He said that during those times, “many collectors would follow in the wake of the cavalry who massacred old people, women and children. They committed genocide and there was a brisk trade in Indian art by the collectors who followed and swarmed over the corpses.”

The RAM first became aware that Sotheby’s was selling the collection about two weeks prior to the auction, says RAM Curator Susan Berry. RAM staff immediately sprang into action.

They contacted other museums to ensure they wouldn’t compete in the bidding, and for letters of support to funders. They contacted Aboriginal leaders for letters of support. They contacted funding agencies to secure funding in time for the auction. All responded immediately and positively.

At stake was a distinctive collection of rare artifacts from the mid-19th century, an era which was not represented in the RAM collection. Sotheby’s, which conducted the May 8 sale in New York, called the collection “the most historically significant group of American Indian art ever to be offered at auction.”

The artifacts had been gathered by James Carnegie, the 9th Earl of Southesk on a tour of western Canada, beginning in 1859. The journey is chronicled in his book, “Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains.”

Only 32 when he made the journey, and in ill heath from mourning the loss of his young wife, he made the trip, as he wrote later, to “travel in some part of the world where good sport could be met with among the larger animals and where, at the same time, I might recruit my health by an active open-air life in a healthy climate.”

His choice was what was the Rupert’s Land and traveled through southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, spent a week at Fort Edmonton, then headed up the Athabasca River and down to the Kootney Plains and the Bow River near what is now Calgary and Banff.

Dubbed by some as the “first tourist” to visit Western Canada, not being an explorer, trader or surveyor like those who had come before him.

He didn’t exactly rough it. Although he dressed like a frontiersman in buckskin, his entourage included a gamekeeper from his Scottish estate and an Iroquois cook, as well as guides and porters. He even traveled with a rubber bathtub.

As he wrote in his journal, “I was in the act of washing myself in my India rubber bath, when suddenly the door flew open, and two splendidly dressed Indians Indians walked into the room as if the whole place belonged to them, but on seeing me they stopped, and stared with all their might. We stared at one another for a moment, then a radiant smile came over their faces, and there was a general laugh after which I continued my sponging, to their evident wonder and amazement.”

The earl didn’t always see the Indians in so positive a light, dismissing some as “bloated, disgusting savages” while praising the Metis as “tall, straight and well proportioned.”

The earl, like other tourists, gathered souvenirs as he travelled, purchasing or commissioning dozens of pieces from Metis, Cree, Nakoda. Blood and Blackfoot artists and craftspeople, including shirta, dresses, moccasin, mittes, purses, pipes, knives, sheaths, and saddle pads. In some instances he had items such as slippers made specifically for his four young children at home.

The collection had been languishing in the ancestral castle in Scotland for the past 150 years, many in pristine condition, with intricate beadwork fully intact, porcupine quill work that has retained its brilliant colours and silk ribbons that remain unfrayed.
The collection was not unknown here, according to Berry.

Dr. Sherry Farrell Racette of the University of Saskatchewan had seen and studied the collection in Scotland, as has Dr. Pat McCormack of the University of Alberta’s School of Native Studies and researchers from the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

The RAM staff expected the bidding to be fierce. Jack Brink, RAM curator of archeology, says items such as those in the Southesk collection, are especially in demand from private collectors in the Unted States.

Now, says Berry, some of the pieces in the collection will be available because the RAM successfully bid for them against other bidders in the United States and elsewhere, possibly making them unavailable for viewing and research in Alberta, and maybe anywhere else.

The RAM’s success in acquiring the items has a double benefit, says Berry, rescuing First Nations and Metis artifacts of great cultural and historical significance, and a big step for the RAM to become one of Canada’s great museums.

“If people are coming to the Royal Alberta Museum from around the world,” says RAM director Bruce McGillivray, “this is the kind of collection they expect to see.”

The RAM was unable to bid successfully for every item in the collection, but did acquire 29 of the 39 pieces being offered for a little less than $1.1 million Canadian, thanks to a cultural properties grant from the Canadian Heritage Emergency Program, and grants from the Alberta Heritage Research Foundation and Alberta Aboriginal Affairs.

Unfortunately, Berry says, Sotheby’s would not reveal the identity of the private collectors who purchased the other 10 items, including the item that went for the highest price. That was an elaborately beaded Blackfoot man’s shirt that sold to a private collector for $800,000 U.S.

The RAM scored its own coup, however, successfully bidding $497,600 U.S. for a Kainai (Blood) dress which the earl described in his journal as “a beautiful specimen of a Blood Indian women’s dress, made from prepared skins of the mountain sheep and richly embroidered with blue and white beads. Such dresses are now seldom to be seen.”

According to the earl’s journal, was bought from an Indian for a bottle of rum, the woman’s husband stripping it off her on the spot to make the trade. Belcourt says that account of how he obtained the dress, reprinted in Sotheby’s catalogue of the collection, “fortifies every ignorant stereotype of Aboriginal North Americans. That’s totally outrageous. It would be like somebody who had a collection of artifacts-clothing, eyeglasses, gold teeth and diamond rings-from the Holocaust.”

Before this purchase the RAM had no artifacts from the 1850s in its collection, with most remaining in European collections.

Berry says the time from when the availability of the collection was discovered until the auction was over was extremely stressful for everyone involved, and that stress will continue until the collection actually arrives at the museum.

“Then I’ll probably burst into tears.”

But she emphasizes that the acquisition is not about her and the RAM team. “It’s really about the collection, the people who made the objects and how they were made.

Museum staff is still sorting out the logistics of preparing the purchases for shipping-maybe under the supervision of a RAM staffer-and ensuring that it arrives at the museum safely.

Once it has arrived and been prepared for exhibition at the RAM, there will be a “welcoming event” to celebrate the acquisition, Berry says.