Nobody owns history.
But that never stops people from trying.
History is often seen by ambitious or greedy people as a commodity, rather than a record of the past that belongs to all of us.
National leaders see history as a tool to be manipulated to enhance their power or prestige, or to guarantee themselves a favourable legacy. Artists were commissioned to create idealized scenes of historic events, like Napoleon’s self-coronation as emperor, for which noblemen paid huge sums to have themselves inserted into the scene whether they were actually there or not. Kings and queens were seldom as handsome or beautiful as depicted by the painters and sculptors in their employ.
Just this month Canadians heard former prime minister Brian Mulroney admit to accepting $225,000 in cash from a sleazy lobbyist, then tell a public inquiry that he had never knowingly done anything wrong in his entire life. That was his pitch to be treated kindly by historians.
The oral teachings of Indigenous peoples are often dismissed by academics as being -- at best-- vague and incomplete, and – at worst – totally inaccurate. But are our traditional stories likely to be any less reliable than those handed down by historians-for-hire? I doubt that Hitler’s personal biographer dared mention that the Fuhrer was anything but the epitome of good behaviour.
Because the stories that are handed down to us by spoken word or printed page can be prone to error or exaggeration, we cling to history’s more tangible record – the physical evidence that things happened the way we have been led to believe.
It is one thing to have Champlain’s diary about his travels through this continent, but quite another to be able to attribute an astrolabe found in a field near Renfrew to be a possession of the founder of New France. This is where history can assume more than altruistic value.
A piece of tattered clothing, a shard of unearthed pottery – these become precious icons in the hands of archeologists and historians – and pricey merchandise in the hands of the wrong people.
There is a thriving marketplace for relics that might have been stolen from museums, confiscated during wartime or put up for sale by heirs who have greater need for hard cash than a piece of history to place on their mantel.
Manitoulin Island members of the Biidaasige-Cywink families have been wrestling with the fate of a silver medal given to an ancestor, Odawa Chief Egominey, at Treaty of Niagara ceremonies in July of 1764. A family member authorized Bonhams Auction House to place the medal on the block for an estimated $20,000 return, while others want to see it entrusted to the care of a First Nations museum or cultural centre.
The gathering at Niagara was a landmark occasion. Sir William Johnson, superintendent of Indian Affairs for British North America, presented representatives of over 2,000 chiefs and headmen two wampum belts to unite them in a treaty of peace and friendship with the British. The ceremony served to reinforce the previous year’s Royal Proclamation by which the most powerful country on earth formally recognized North American Indians as distinct nations.
The fate of the original wampum belts is unclear; they may have been buried with chiefs, lost in a Manitoulin fire or be hidden away, like so many important Native cultural items, in private or public collections.
But there is one tangible memento from that historic event. Only one of the three King George III Indian Peace Medals given to Anishinabek chiefs for loyal service to the British Crown is known to still exist, the one that was scheduled to be auctioned off May 25th in Toronto.
Thanks to the intervention of family members and a lawyer, the plan to auction Chief Egominey’s medal was put on hold. A Bonhams spokesman said that Lot 28 had been withdrawn “due to a family dispute”, but he hoped it might be available for sale at the firm’s fall auction.
This medal rightfully belongs to all citizens of the Anishinabek Nation, on whose behalf it was accepted by Chief Egominey. It represents a sacred covenant between peoples, without which the flags that today fly over public buildings across Canada would almost certainly be the Stars and Stripes.
Our leaders need to work with other governments to ensure that our artifacts – pipes, wampum belts, medals, regalia – are treated with the same respect as the remains of our ancestors, and subject to similar repatriation laws.
Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief wrote MP Peter Stoffer, NDP Veterans' Affairs critic, asking him to consider adding such items of historic significance as the King George III Peace Medal to his private member's bill advocating a ban on the commercial sale of military medals.
If we cannot do a better job of preserving our past we will never be capable of building a better future.
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He serves as director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News.