A new permanent exhibit at the McCord Museum shines a spotlight on Indigenous knowledge, trauma and resilience, as
told by Onkwehón:we themselves.
Museums have long been criticized for the way they represent non-European societies, often portraying them through the
settler point of view and perpetuating subjugation by displaying culturally important artifacts that were taken by deceptive means.
With Indigenous Voices of Today, the McCord Museum is taking a concrete step away from the old way of doing things.
“It was important to me that in the exhibit, you hear directly from the people,” said Elisabeth Kaine of the Huron-Wendat Nation, the exhibit’s curator.
She and her research team spent years travelling to several Indigenous communities across Quebec, speaking to over 700 people about their teachings, their experiences, and their hopes for the future. They collected over 2,000 pages of transcribed interviews and 300 hours of video. These testimonies are the cornerstone of the exhibit, the material that explains the roughly 100 artifacts on display and illustrates both the trauma and the strength of Indigenous Peoples.
“The most important things for me in doing this research were listening to the people and hearing the truth,” she said.
And the truth, they spoke.
Harrowing testimony of residential schools, the foster care system, missing and murdered Indigenous women, and suicide, told by those directly affected and their loved ones. But also, recounts of knowledge and traditions passed down through generations: hunting and fishing rituals, practices for living on the land, various plants and their medicinal uses, the cultural significance of beadwork and other art forms.
“It talks about how colonialism ignored and suppressed these teachings,” explained Kaine.
And, it discusses what the Western worldview can learn from Indigenous knowledge: “consensus, the equality of all living
things. All these teachings that they spent 200 years dismissing.”
The exhibit begins with an overview of Indigenous worldviews, particularly how they differ from the Western school of thought. It explains that Indigenous Peoples traditionally did not believe in the concept of land ownership, and all were nomadic or semi-nomadic. These two details led to a fundamentally different approach towards the land, an approach Onkwehón:we continue to fight for their right to observe.
Another difference the exhibit highlights is in childrearing. It explains how authority and control were not the ways in
which Indigenous Peoples approached their relationships with their children, but rather respect and cooperation: teaching the children was a process done in partnership with them.
Though children were highly cherished in Indigenous communities, settlers mistook their different parenting style as being
Most of the artifacts that are part of the exhibit, which were selected by the Innu Jean St-Onge of the Maison de la transmission de la culture Innue Shaputuan in Uashat, are found in this first portion elaborating on Indigenous worldviews.
Kanien’kehá:ka artifacts in this section include a cradleboard and beadwork. Kaine said that there is a lot of information about Kanien’kehá:ka and their relationship to their children, as this is heavily documented.
There is a wampum belt included in the exhibit depicting two hands positioned close to each other as if they are about to
do a handshake, but its origin is unknown.
Jonathan Lainey, the McCord Museum’s conservator for Indigenous artifacts and also a member of the Huron-Wendat Nation, has studied wampum belts extensively and has never encountered this one in almost two decades studying Indigenous history.
He said that its origin could be anywhere from eastern Quebec to the Great Lakes region.
“Museums today, we’re sort of depositories of old private collections. We have several objects that were acquired through practices and standards that belong to the 1800s or 1900s,” he explained.
“So if the collector did not consider it important to know the origin of the piece or its significance, then we don’t have that information in our database.”
The database entry for the wampum, written by David Ross McCord himself, speculates that it comes from the Huron-Wendat Nation, which Lainey questions.
“Who told him that? Did McCord invent this? We just don’t know.”
He plans on researching this belt in the hopes of determining its origin, a process he has undertaken in the past with other belts, but has not had time to begin this process as he was only hired in 2020.
Lainey explained some of the careful considerations that were necessary in deciding what objects to put on display, like this wampum.
“Some museums I’ve worked with have not wanted to display wampums because they’ve been told they shouldn’t. But I’m from Wendake, I have studied these objects, and I have discussed this with other researchers who specialize in wampum.
“I feel comfortable putting wampum on display because they are diplomatic objects. They are political and for the public. But if a community tells us that they don’t want it displayed or that it belongs to them, of course, we will adjust.”
The next section delves into the many traumas Indigenous Peoples have experienced since colonization. A dress made by Kanien’kehá:ka Cheryl McDonald honouring missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is on display in this section. McDonald’s video testimony can be seen throughout the exhibit, among other Kanien’kehá:ka.
Kaine explained that though the museum was ultimately supportive of creating an exhibit that took an in-depth look at not
just Indigenous wisdom but also Indigenous suffering, it did raise two concerns: did Indigenous Peoples want this painful history on display, and was society prepared to listen?
“I was convinced that it was yes to the first question, and to the second question, whether people are ready or not, it needs to be out there,” she said. “It creates a space for compassion.”
The last section is forward-looking: it presents projects currently underway that empower Indigenous communities and asks what it takes to have a meaningful encounter between cultures. A TV display plays the responses of several Indigenous people to this question. They are varied but bring up common elements: listening, respect, curiosity, and truth.
Kaine and Lainey said the exhibit is a manifestation of the museum’s desire to create this kind of meaningful encounter
and another step in the process of decolonization.
“I think it’s important to use the word ‘process’ because that’s exactly what it is,” said Lainey. “It’s not finished just because they hired me, an Indigenous conservator. I don’t think we can ever say we’re done with this process.”
He also noted that it’s not just up to him and the Indigenous people on the board of directors to make sure the museum moves in a direction that is respectful of Indigenous cultures and mindful of the ways museums have perpetuated colonialism in the past.
“I don’t want to be the only resource person. I want to help my coworkers, but it’s also on them to learn and to become aware of how to do things differently,” he said. “It’s a process that involves every single person in the institution.”
As the McCord Museum celebrates its 100th anniversary, it is currently offering 100 days of free admission to its exhibits
– which is great timing as Indigenous Voices of Today opened at the end of September. But even past the 100 free days, entrance to view the exhibit will always be free for Onkwehón:we.
Savannah Stewart is a writer, editor and translator from Montreal currently reporting with The Eastern Door. She is the contributing editor for the arts for Cult MTL and her work has also appeared in Briarpatch Magazine, Ricochet, Maisonneuve Magazine and The Rover. She tweets at @SavannahMTL.