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The main exhibition space at the Peterborough Museum and Archives featuring the To Honour and Respect collection. The exhibit will run until November 19th, 2023. Photo by Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay.

To Honour and Respect: How 13 Quillwork Baskets Crafted by Michi-Saagiig Women in 1860 Arrived Back in Peterborough and What They Continue to Teach About Indigenous Arts and Our Relations

Written by
Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay
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August 11, 2023
To Honour and Respect: How 13 Quillwork Baskets Crafted by Michi-Saagiig Women in 1860 Arrived Back in Peterborough and What They Continue to Teach About Indigenous Arts and Our Relations
The main exhibition space at the Peterborough Museum and Archives featuring the To Honour and Respect collection. The exhibit will run until November 19th, 2023. Photo by Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay.

In April of 2016, shortly after completing her PhD in Art Education at Concordia University, Dr. Lori Beavis travelled to England to visit Osborne House and the Swiss Cottage Museum on the Isle of Wight which houses a vast collection of personal items of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their nine children. 

Dr. Beavis, who is a citizen of Hiawatha First Nation, was drawn to the museum after learning of a collection of thirteen birch bark baskets crafted by Michi Saagiig women whose intricate porcupine quillwork adorns them, through the work of art historian, Ruth B. Phillips. These baskets, or makakoon were gifted to Queen Victoria’s eighteen-year-old son Albert the Prince of Wales during the first royal tour of what is now Canada in 1860.

Dr. Beavis’s visit would prove to be the initial step in bringing the baskets back to their home community, to participate in ceremony and to hear their language on their ancestral lands for the first time in over 160 years. Since April of 2023, the makakoon have been on loan from the Royal Collection Trust and have since been on display at the Peterborough Museum and Archives as part of a six-month-long exhibit entitled “To Honour and Respect: Gifts from Michi Saagiig Women to the Prince of Wales, 1860.” 

The Prince visited Rice Lake on September 7th and was greeted by the community of Michi-Saagiig peoples in what is now Hiawatha First Nation. This collection is a unique piece of material history which serves as a record of the Prince’s visit to the Rice Lake area as no photographs or records of the speeches given on that day seem to have survived. 

It is unique as well in that, remarkably, the names of the women who created the baskets for this particular event survive, with many of them being sewn directly onto the makakoon or included in handwritten notes. 

Having completed her graduate studies, Dr. Beavis became interested in how she could work alongside other curators and museums to bring the makakoon back to their ancestral lands, to hear their language being spoken, and to allow for Michi Saagiig people to learn more about their material and cultural history through interacting with these ancestors.

The historical period in which the baskets were produced offers insight into how the women who created them were responding to the increasing presence of settlers in this area, Dr. Beavis noted. When looking at the quilled patterns, which vary from sharp geometric and repetitive patterns to flowing depictions of floral subjects, the collection acts as a snapshot of how diverse the artistic expression and interests of these Michi-Saagiig ancestors were, as well as how their art was changing in the years prior to Canadian confederation.

One such piece of the collection, a hand-bag made by Margaret Anderson, strikes Dr. Beavis and others as particularly emblematic of this idea. The bag is modelled after hand-bags which would have been popular among European women during this period and stands out as unique among the 12 others in the collection in its form, as well as in the intricate floral patterns depicting flowers, stems, and leaves with rounded edges that flow across both sides of the bag. 

The handbag made by Margaret Anderson recalls popular European styles from the period. It also features a flowing style of floral quillwork, demonstrating the diversity of artistic expression in the Rice Lake community. Photo by Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay.

As this specific collection represents a period of Indigenous artistic practise which pre-dates the implementation of the Indian Act and other legislation which followed from Confederation and subsequently criminalized cultural practises, the makakoon also represent a means for artists and community members to gain a greater sense of what was being created by the Michi Saagiig women during that historical period.

Owen Thompson, Conservator at the Peterborough Museum and Archives, views this as an especially important context for this exhibit as it is allowing descendents of these women and current artists working in the medium to interact with and learn from the collection as an example of works created prior to the practice being severely limited through colonial government legislation.

When speaking of the makakoon, Dr. Beavis and others involved in the project are careful to explain that these are not objects, but rather ancestors who are coming home to visit after a long time away from their communities. Part of the significance of this collection too is the fact that the names of the women who created and gifted the makakoon to the Prince are known.

According to Dr. Laura Peers, a historian and former Curator at Oxford University who is currently an Adjunct Professor in Trent’s Department of Anthropology and School for the Study of Canada, this is extremely rare. 

“You occasionally get the name of a famous person who owns something,” Dr. Peers said. “There are a lot of items attributed to Tecumseh or Sitting Bull or whoever. But you very, very seldom get the names of makers and to have these 11 names of women makers is, I think, unprecedented.” 

After extensive work alongside the Six Mississauga Nations, which includes Alderville, Curve Lake, Hiawatha, Mississauga of the Credit, Mississauga, and Scugog Island, Beavis and a team which included Dr. Laura Peers as co-curator; Susan Neale, Director of the Peterborough Museum and Archives (PMA); and Rachel Peat Underhill, Curator of Decorative Arts with the Royal Collections Trust, worked to bring the makakoon to Peterborough. 

Supported by a federal grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage through their Museum Assistance Program and the Indigenous Heritage Stream, the story of how the makakoon came to Peterborough contains powerful lessons about past, present, and future relationships between Indigenous communities, settlers, and all levels of government. It is also a narrative which relates to the importance of nation-to-nation and international relationships and the nuances of repatriation efforts and reconciliation within institutions like museums and universities.


Rejuvenating Cultural Practices:

The exhibit has allowed for Indigenous artists to study the work of community members from over 160 years ago. In doing so, old ways of working with quills and birch bark have been re-invigorated within Indigenous communities through workshops and through their personal work. 

As one of the primary workshop facilitators involved in the To Honour and Respect exhibit, Hiawatha artist and educator, Sandra D. Moore has been working on a legacy project inspired by the work of the women which will remain in the community once the makakoon have made their way back to England in November. 

When first shown a picture of one of the baskets made by Betsy Simon, Moore immediately zoomed in on the unique textured elements used to create the flower motif on the top of the basket. 

“I had the privilege of holding several of those baskets in my hands,” Moore told me as we sat at her kitchen table. “But that one with the knots–I held that basket, and I wept. I’m sure Betsy never realized what a gift she’d be giving to our community 160 years later.”

Detail of the box made by Betsy Simon featuring the tied quills technique Moore and others have since incorporated into their own artistic and teaching practices. Photo by: Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay.

The style of quillwork, which consists of tying knots in the quills before pulling them through the bark was like nothing Moore and many of her friends and fellow quillwork artists across Turtle Island had ever seen before. Through various attempts to emulate this style, Moore and others who she has since passed this knowledge to have begun to include this technique in their own work, including Moore’s legacy project.

"People I teach in classes are using this style of quilling now,” Moore told me. “So it’s a new style of quilling that we got right from that one cool box.”  

The legacy project, which she proudly displayed when I visited her home in Hiawatha, includes visual representations of all six Mississauga nations and references her own interests in raising Monarch butterflies. 

“I don’t care if anybody remembers me, but I really care that they remember and know and still see Monarch butterflies,” she told me. “That’s where this piece is at for me. Because [raising butterflies is] a project that I do that is really important to me.” 

Sandra D. Moore in her home with the To Honour and Respect Legacy Project. The piece prominently features symbols of the Six Mississagua Nations as well as a poppy, an orange shirt, birch tree, and Moore’s beloved Monarch Butterflies. Photo by Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay.

Having the opportunity to be in relation to these ancestors has been an invaluable experience for Moore, who began quilling in 2010. Moore brings the piece to her workshops as well as to events and invites those who are interested to place a quill in the project. So far 350+ people have placed a blue quill in the focal point of the piece representing Rice Lake. 

Often people who she invites to place a quill are worried that they’ll ruin the project, Moore told me, at which point she will quickly assure them that they can’t before showing them exactly what they need to do.  

“People are so excited and honoured,” Moore said. “A couple of women have stood and cried because they feel so connected and so honoured by the Indigenous community that we welcome them to be part of this project.”

After they place a quill in the legacy project, individuals are encouraged to sign a piece of paper and include where they are from–a question which Moore notes has proven to be deceptively difficult for people who answer and has produced a number of important conversations about the trans-national and international dimensions of this project and the exhibit that it grew in response to.

The conversations which Moore engages in about the To Honour and Respect Exhibit and the legacy project tend to focus on the idea of being a part of a global community–both one which is creating this legacy piece, but also one that highlights the spirit in which these baskets were originally gifted. The importance of honouring their ancestors’ wishes that these be given with the understanding of reciprocity is one which has elicited strong emotions within the communities of the Six Mississaugua Nations.

Moore noted that there exists “a range of feelings about even making the gifts to the Prince of Wales in 1860. There are feelings about whether they should go back or not. But, as a community, we’re going to honour the spirit in which those baskets were given all those years ago.”

“They were given as gifts in good faith, and we’re not going to ask to keep them,” she continued. “We’re not going to insist that they stay here, where they came from—we’re going to send them back because that’s how they were given. We’re not going to change that relationship.”

Likewise, Brett Gerolamy who, in her capacity as People & Culture Advisor for the City of Peterborough, has played an instrumental role in speaking to groups of visitors and arranging times for informational tours noted the complex emotional stake involved in bringing the ancestors home when we spoke in the Carnegie building beside City Hall. 

Gerolamy, who is Annishinaabe from Neyaashiinigmiing First Nation, noted that her involvement in speaking to so many people about the ancestors and being involved in meetings and public engagements with community members over the course of planning their visit has allowed her to reflect on the nature of this visit.

“I had a lot of emotions with these items coming back to Canada–with them just coming for a visit,” Gerolamy told me. “Obviously, there’s a large group of people who have a personal connection and want to be around these items. And it’s like, ‘Why? Why do we have to give it back? Why do they have to return [to England]?’”

The process has allowed her to relate to the people who ask these important questions and through her work has seen visitors come to the understanding that respect should be paid to the intent behind the creation of the baskets.

“We would never ask for that gift back because then we’re taking the reason that these ancestors were made, we’re taking that identity away from them,” she said.


Institutional Cooperation:  

However, for Gerolamy and others, a question remains about why efforts such as the ones behind the To Honour and Respect Exhibit need to be driven primarily by Indigenous people and communities and has caused her to reflect on the status of relationships between institutions like the Royal Collection Trust, PMA, and the various levels of government in Canada. 

Speaking of the Trust, Gerolamy suggested that “maybe they just didn’t feel like they could [reach out] and maybe our relationship isn’t in a state where they could be asking that. So I do have to be happy that it’s happening now that we’re getting something now and not still hold on to my anger that it’s been 163 years.”

The process of bringing the makakoon back to their homeland for this visit involved a massive degree of institutional and community cooperation and presented numerous learning opportunities for all involved. 

Now held by the Royal Collection Trust, the makakoon have been on continuous display in their original Victorian cases since their arrival in England in 1861, a fact which was explained by Rachel Peat Underhill who travelled alongside the baskets from England as the representative of the Trust during her time in Peterborough. 

Established in 1993, the Royal Collection Trust, as its name suggests, looks after the vast Royal Collection. One of its mandates is to ensure that as much of the Royal Collection as possible is available to be seen by members of the public which includes facilitating loans to institutions like PMA. 

Dr. Peers noted that this particular loan is interesting given the size of the PMA and the fact that it is a city-run institution, which means that from an administrative angle, there were particular considerations in place. 

“It’s not a University where people are attending to talk and think about access and repatriation and all the things related to that,” Peers said. “They’re a city museum, they’re bound by city rules, which tend to be fairly conservative.” 

The process was a rigorous one for the PMA. When I sat down to speak with the museum director Susan Neale, she reflected upon the amount of paperwork required by the Royal Collection Trust.

“We had to submit documents that exhibited and documented our environmental conditions, lighting, age back, safety and security; We had to submit resumes of the personnel here and our training background for the Royal Collection Trust to review and be sure that they could safely house—even though it was for a temporary time—their objects here,” Neale explained. “They treat everything like they’re the crown jewels, it’s the same set of rules, no matter what it is, it’s part of their collections.”

Despite the sheer amount of work, Neale said that it was reassuring to her as it reinforced for her and the museum and archive staff just how well-equipped an institution they are. Even when the death of Queen Elizabeth II in September of 2022 necessitated the re-signing of paperwork with the new sovereign and slowed communication with the Trust just seven months before the ancestor’s planned arrival, PMA rose to the occasion. 

The complexities inherent in the process were also compounded by the importance of ensuring that once the ancestors arrived they would be accessible to community members and be able to participate in ceremony. 

Neale noted that the fact that many pieces of the Trust’s collection are living collections, meaning they are worn and used in Royal events, might have eased conversations regarding the level of public interaction the makakoon would be exposed to during their time in Peterborough.  

Dr. Peers noted that there were a lot of frank conversations in which she and Dr. Beavis would report back to the Trust after meetings with the Indigenous-led planning circles about what would be required to ensure the ancestors were available in a culturally appropriate way which included feasting, smudging, and pipe ceremonies upon their arrival.

“It was simply a matter of getting everybody to articulate their knowledge and their questions and every time we did that, the Royal Collection Trust people said, ‘Oh, okay that sounds okay. We can do that,” Peers said.

As a testament to the commitment of the Royal Collection Trust in engaging with this history, they ensured that Peat Underhill was able to stay in the community for a longer period of time than is typical in similar instances of institutional loaning when the curator might spend three days during which the artifacts are unloaded and inspected.  

“They sent Rachel for ten days specifically to learn and so we gave her this cultural tour,” Dr. Peers told me. “[Hiawatha] Chief [Laurie] Carr took her to dinner and a tour of the First Nation and to talk to various people down at Hiawatha and to get a sense of what the community was like today and why these items are still important to the people today.” 

The role the City has played in bringing the ancestors for this exhibit is an integral part of the larger narrative. Gerolamy joked with me that she “forced” her way into being involved in this exhibition after previously being involved as a human relations consultant for the museum during a 2017 exhibit called “A Matter of Ownership: First Peoples’ Objects In The Peterborough Museum and Archives Collection” which was meant to educate the public and work to find proper permanent homes for the artifacts. 

“They were trying to repatriate some items that were in their catalogue that they didn’t really have a history of how they got there, or where they were from, which meant that they were probably stolen from Indigenous communities. And they just wanted to see if they could find homes for them,” Gerollamy told me when we sat down to talk in the Carnegie Building beside City Hall. 

The PMA has a long history of repatriation projects, Dr. Peers noted citing the museum’s experience with returning human remains from the Brock Street burial site to Curve Lake in May of 1991, making it a very early instance in the scope of Canadian repatriation efforts.

In her experience, Dr. Peers recognizes the unique experiences of working the the PMA in the level of involvement from various levels of the Museum’s management team and Board in ensuring the ancestors were able to visit. Specifically, she noted that while at most institutions this work is carried out at the curatorial level, at the PMA the work was undertaken by the museum’s director, Susan Neale, as well as administrative, marketing, and education staff in addition to the curatorial levels. 

PMA’s curator, Kim Ried, has recalled the specific repatriation effort. She told me that in 1990-91 while PMA had long since removed human remains from their public displays, they recognized that it was time to return this specific ancestor to a proper burial place 

“It turns out that they were Point Peninsula people and we could tell that from the grave goods that were buried with it, the shape of the points and the type of burial it was in,” Ried said. “It was Curve Lake that stepped up to say ‘We will take this person and re-bury them in our cemetery.’ So we went through a great deal of work with Curve Lake and in May of 1991, there was a sunrise ceremony at the back of their cemetery, a very sunny, foggy day, and we laid the full skeletal remains and another sculpt that was part of another [burial] mound that was from the Victorian times.”

Today, PMA staff view their primary role when it comes to exhibits and care for artifacts as increasing accessibility for Indigenous communities in a variety of ways, including the current loan from the Royal Collection Trust.

The museum’s Visitor Experience Coodinator, Dustin McIlwain, noted that this can look like guided tours, as well as workshops, such as those run by Sandra Moore, which call attention to the art behind the makakoon and provide contexts for what it would have been like to create them in the 1860s. 

“They’ve really embraced the project as an opportunity to build on the desire to go in the direction they want to go and to work with local communities,” Dr. Peers told me. “They argued strongly to their own management board, which is a city subcommittee and to city councillors, that they should really go for this project.”

The question of repatriation is one which piques the interest of many visitors and was widely discussed throughout the process of organizing the loan according to everyone contacted for this article. The act of gifting the baskets to the Prince of Wales was an opportunity for the Indigenous communities around Curve Lake to show their loyalty to the Crown, but also provided them with a chance to lodge grievances around increasing displacement from their lands. 

This hand written note from Mary Cabbage (Minny Cobierge) to the Prince of Wales was included alongside her basket. Cobierge won awards for her craft and artistry including second place at the 1848 Cobourg Fair for a pair of quilled moccasins. Photo by Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay.

In many ways as well, the Prince’s visits to Indigenous communities such as the Michi-Saagiig village at Rice Lake was staged or framed in a way that was often interpreted by colonial powers as an opportunity to bear witness to the “progress” of the “civilizing” colonial project. What was meant and intended as a symbol of trust and responsibility—to honour and respect their respective realms of governance by the Michi-Saagiig of Rice Lake—was largely interpreted by non-Indigenous officials not as a symbol of expected reciprocity, but purely an indication of the Crown’s power over Indigenous communities.  

For Moore, they were, and remain, a symbol of a spirit of hope that a nation-to-nation relationship would exist between the Crown and First Nations in what is now called Canada. In her workshops she sees non-Indigenous and Indigenous people learning the art of quillwork in a manner which she views as a step towards reconciliation

“They’re not just learning an art, they’re connecting with a First Nation community,” she told me. 

This connection, she says, is based on the recognition of the ways in which these gifts connect communities to their ancestors and settlers to our history and the responsibility to learn from and improve relations with Indigenous communities.

“I didn’t realize the power that those quill baskets would bring with them from England,” Moore told me. “After 164 years of power, I think it’s stronger than ever.”

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