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Emotional ceremony welcomes birch bark scrolls back to Ojibwe people

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Emotional ceremony welcomes birch bark scrolls back to Ojibwe people

Feb 17, 2024 | 10:47 am ET
By Mary Annette Pember
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Emotional ceremony welcomes birch bark scrolls back to Ojibwe people
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The repatriation team that helped recover historic Ojibwe scrolls gathers at the Bay Mills Cultural Center on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024, after a ceremony welcoming the scrolls back to their homeland. Behind them is a mural depicting symbols from ancient birch bark scrolls describing the Ojibwe migration story. Pictured are, left to right, Jerry Jondreau, Kate Aamoo, Josephine Jondreau, Howard Kimewon, Wanda Perron, Micah Assignee, Kayla Perron-Assinewe and Robber Assiinewe. (Photo courtesy of Whitney Gravelle)

This story first appeared in Indian Country Today.

“Mission accomplished,” wrote Jerry Jondreau on his Facebook page.

In a photo accompanying the post, Jondreau, of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community in Michigan, looks tired. He looks like the man who drove four days in a car with youngsters still recovering from COVID.

Despite his fatigue, however, Jondreau smiles broadly in the photo, surrounded by members of the tribe’s repatriation team who rescued precious birch bark scrolls from the oblivion of private collectors.

Elders and members of the Bay Mills Indian Community welcomed home the set of four scrolls — used by Ojibwe peoples to record historical and religious information – on Tuesday with ceremony and dignity, and at least a few tears.

“In Western culture, they say a picture says a thousand words. But for Ojibwe, a picture has thousands of years of meaning,” Jondreau told ICT.

For Jondreau, the statement embodies the wealth of historical and cultural significance represented by the scrolls and the symbols engraved by Ojibwe ancestors more than a century ago.

The scrolls had been set for auction at Cottone Auctions based in New York on behalf of a private collector. Jondreau helped organize an effort via social media to purchase the scrolls at a public internet auction, raising about $5,000. The Bay Mills Community quickly joined Jondreau’s efforts, contributing the final $2,500 to make up the $7,500 purchase price to ensure the precious artifacts could be returned to the extended Ojibwe community around the Great Lakes.

Keweenaw Bay and Bay Mills are among several bands of the Ojibwe tribe in the region that includes Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and parts of Canada.

The scrolls are considered too precious for shipping, however; they demanded hands-on transfer. So on Friday, Feb. 9, Jondreau, his partner Katy Bresette and their two small children joined a caravan of elders and representatives of the Bay Mills tribal historic preservation office to pick up the scrolls in the little town of Geneseo, New York, located about an hour east of Buffalo where the scrolls were held by the auction house.

“I don’t think they were aware of how sacred those things are,” Jondreau said.

Emotional ceremony welcomes birch bark scrolls back to Ojibwe people
This birch bark Ojibwe scroll, shown here on a LiveAuctioneers website, was purchased by a coalition of tribes at auction on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, to prevent it and several others from going back into private collections. The scrolls, from about 1900, are believed to have come from Michigan and were in a private collection. (Screen grab by Mary Annette Pember, ICT)

Growing awareness

Collectors and museum curators may view such items as inanimate objects to be bought and sold, displayed to the public or kept hidden away on storeroom shelves. Ojibwe and many other Indigenous peoples, however, believe that some sacred objects have lives of their own with spirit to assist in healing and ceremony.

In recent years, however, the general public has come to question the practice of ignoring the Indigenous worldview and connection to their patrimony. In 2021, Skinner Auctioneers agreed to remove an Ojibwe scroll offered for sale on their website and permitted Sean Blanchet, co-owner of Revere Auctions in St. Paul, Minnesota, to purchase the scroll at its top assessed value of $2,500. Blanchet then returned the scroll to the White Earth Nation.

In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio, Blanchet said that auction houses need to do more to identify sacred objects that appear on lists for sale.

“It’s important to understand that this does not represent even 1 percent of the objects that come to market currently in auction houses, and that are bought and sold by collectors of Native American art and artifacts,” he said. “This is a very, very small slice of those objects.”

Earlier this year, the federal government updated the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, known as NAGPRA, to require public institutions to defer to tribes when keeping and displaying cultural objects. There has been extensive coverage in mainstream media of museums covering up displays of these objects as they scramble to determine how to respond to the new regulations. Currently, the law does not extend to private owners and collectors, but would affect private museums or institutions that receive public funding. Federal law, however, does prohibit trafficking in Indigenous human remains.

Bringing them home

The journey to save the scrolls repatriated to Bay Mills has been a whirlwind of activity, including the hastily organized, 800-mile round-trip drive from Michigan to New York state to retrieve the artifacts from the auction house.

Operators seemed unprepared for the group’s arrival and had trouble locating the scrolls, according to Jondreau. After some searching, the artifacts were found uncovered, sitting directly on two folding chairs in an office.

“It was an odd feeling to that auction house,” Jondreau said.

Kayla Perron Assinewe, representative for the Bay Mills NAGPRA Office, was surprised to see a worker at the auction house pick the scrolls up with her bare hands. Such artifacts are typically handled using archival gloves and paper to protect them from fingerprints and dirt.

“I asked her why she wasn’t using archival gloves,” Assinewe said. “I asked them to immediately stop touching them.”

Eventually workers found some archival paper in which to wrap the scrolls. Elders smudged and prayed over the scrolls, then wrapped the package in a blanket and placed them in a box before moving them to a vehicle for the trip home.

The scrolls are approximately 18 inches tall; two of them about 50 inches long and the smaller scrolls are about two feet long, according to Assinewe.

“I don’t think they were intentionally doing anything inappropriate, mostly their behavior reflected ignorance,” Assinewe said. “I guess it’s a prime example of why such things shouldn’t be in the hands of people who don’t know how to care for them.”

The tribal representatives asked if there was any way the auction house could notify them in the future if anything similar to the scrolls were being offered for sale.

“They told us we could set up an account on the auction website and type in keywords for a search; they didn’t seem willing to do anything more,” she said.

Matt Cottone, auctioneer and appraiser specialist at Cottone Auctions, told ICT that the FBI reached out to the auction house on behalf of the tribe before the sale. The agency determined that since there was no evidence the artifacts had been stolen, the sale was legal.

“We did our due diligence; we’re unable to do anything past that,” Cottone said.

Cottone said he reached out to the owner of the artifacts before the auction, notifying him of tribal interest and asked if he would be interested in donating them to the tribes. The owner, who Cottone described as “a longtime and well-respected collector for decades who lives in the region,” declined to donate them.

“Since he wasn’t going to donate them or give them up, they would’ve just gone back into private hands,” Cottone said. “I’m thrilled they went back to where they should be.”

Cottone agreed to share ICT’s contact information with the unidentified owner for a potential interview, but the collector has not yet responded.

Cottone described the offering of the scrolls as unusual for the auction house.

“I don’t think we’ll have anything like that again,” he said.

ICT noted that a number of items listed for sale on the business’s website would likely be subject to NAGPRA if owned by a public organization, but Cottone did not respond.

‘Living spirits’

Initially, tribal leaders who organized the purchase were unsure of the scroll’s authenticity. It became clear soon enough that they were genuine.

“Our elders and knowledge keepers looked at them and it took one second to see they are authentic,” said Whitney Gravelle, president of the Bay Mills Indian Community. “All our hearts knew when we finally saw them in person.”

The auction house listing described the scrolls as dating to 1900, but Bay Mills leaders believe they are far older.

The symbols appear to depict the Ojibwe tribe’s migration story said to have occurred nearly 1,000 years ago. The story describes the journey Ojibwe made to the Great Lakes region from an area east near Nova Scotia, an important event in Ojibwe culture. In fact, symbols describing the story are included in a mural painted on the wall of the tribe’s cultural center.

“They are just one thread in the woven tapestry of our history and our stories as well as our understanding of our relationship, not just with the Creator but also the natural world,” Gravelle said.

Elders and knowledge keepers will continue to decipher and examine the scrolls, with plans to ensure the teachings and scrolls are shared throughout the Ojibwe community, Gravelle said.

But Indigenous peoples should not have to buy sacred objects in order to repatriate them.

“They should be returned to us,” she said.

Gravelle wept during the welcoming home ceremony for the scrolls.

“It was so emotional to connect with our ancestors through the scrolls,” she said. “These scrolls are living spirits that are meant to teach and share knowledge with future generations. If collectors don’t understand that significance, then they’ll never really understand the true value of these objects.”

Gravelle went on to note the healing power of artifacts such as the scrolls.

“Ojibwe face daily challenges to their identity, but seeing the scrolls and welcoming them in the language and with ceremony reinforced that we’re still here,” Gravelle said. “We’re still Ojibwe and it’s going to be ok.”