Before aboriginal treaty pipes could be placed on public display, the Manitoba Museum hosted a daylong feast to invite the sacred artifacts to speak for First Nations people.
"Pipes are considered animate, a kind of person, by Anishinaabe people," says Maureen Matthews, the museum's curator of ethnology and of its latest exhibition, We Are All Treaty People. "They are addressed like another person and are sometimes called grandfather."
Matthews, who conceived the exhibit that opened earlier this month, had to convince reluctant elders to show revered and rarely seen pipes, beaded pipe bags, headdresses and other ceremonial objects collected in the museum's sacred storage area. They are only moved with permission of the elders.
"People are not easy to trust in these situations; some of the objects have been lost to theft in the past," says Jamie Wilson, commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba. "But the elders came to the conclusion that if they wanted their children to see these things they would have to allow them to go on public display."
We Are All Treaty People, presented in the museum's Discovery Room, features five authentic treaty medals, an original chief's coat, an 1875 parchment commission for Treaty No. 4, a historical portrait of chiefs and the ceremonial pipes.
The oldest medal is from 1812 and was given by Lord Selkirk to Chief Peguis. The treaty medals or documents representing the Crown's contractual obligations have been partnered with pipes and pipe bags that symbolize the First Nations' commitment to that treaty.
First Nations' leaders agreed to 11 numbered treaties between 1871 and 1921. Canada gained access to their homelands in return for promises to provide for the well-being of aboriginal people.
Treaties are a growing and contentious issue in the city and province as First Nations push to establish an urban reserve and develop surplus military land on what was Kapyong Barracks as an economic development zone. Talks are also ongoing about education on reserves and resource development. There are 22 land claims outstanding.
"There are unfairnesses that we have yet to resolve," says Matthews. "So many people in Manitoba think the treaty process ended with its signing. Really, the treaty process begins with its signing. It's the development over the last 100 years that has really shaped our province.
"We all benefit from treaties, not just native people. We wouldn't have a right to stand here if we didn't have treaties."
Matthews couldn't see how the exhibit would demonstrate what treaties mean to aboriginal people without bringing into the public the spiritual artifacts. The pipes were part of a sacred ritual that connected physical and spiritual worlds. They helped with consultations with the Creator during negotiations and then were smoked to seal the covenant or treaty.
She strictly followed the protocol for handling the material, including conversing with some objects.
"I do it because I understand that they liked to be talked to," says Matthews, who hopes there will be a permanent treaty display after We Are All Treaty People closes in October. "I'm happy to do it. It's not a game or insincere in any way."
A few days before opening, Matthews, at the direction of Elders Council of the Association of Manitoba Chiefs, held a feast at the shuttered museum that included a water ceremony, inviting the return of the spirits of the pipes.
"The elders welcomed back the pipes," says Wilson, whose commission was a partner with the museum in the exhibit. "They brought old pipes to join the modern pipes. In our culture, pipes are comparable to human remains and the respect that goes with that. You carry them like they were a baby.
"You could feel the energy in the room. It was electric and pretty amazing. We were inviting them to speak again and giving them voice."
What the pipes are saying is that the treaties represent a marriage of two peoples and that the relationship is both historical and contemporary.
"They say that the treaties last as long as the sun shines and water flows," Wilson says. "If you want to understand where we are in Canada today you have to understand treaties. If you want to understand treaties you have to understand the spiritual component."
That We are All Treaty People survived so many cultural obstacles is a reassuring sign for future negotiations.
"The process of getting the artifacts displayed was a real demonstration of how First Nations and other Canadians should work," Wilson said.