Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 2/3/2015 (2234 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In August 1880 eight Inuit from Canada's northeastern coast agreed to travel to Europe to be exhibits in a human zoo. They soon died of smallpox, pining for home.
The skeletons of Abraham Ulrikab and most of his companions were recently rediscovered, fully mounted for display, in the storerooms of a French museum. Inuit elders want their remains, and those of others who died far from northern hunting grounds in the 19th and 20th centuries, to be brought home.
It will not happen quickly.
The government of Nunatsiavut, an Inuit region of northern Labrador established in 2005, already has taken back human remains from museums in Chicago and Newfoundland. David Lough, Nunatsiavut's deputy minister of culture, is not sure how many more there are to be reclaimed, but he believes that, in 500 years of contact between Labrador and the outside world, many people and artifacts are bound to have ended up abroad. One woman, Nancy Columbia, was part of a group showing off Inuit culture at the Chicago World's Fair and found her way to Hollywood, where she starred in westerns as a Native American princess.
Until recently, museums resisted giving back human remains, in the name of science and cultural preservation. The British Museum's Egyptian mummies and the Amazonian tsantsas (shrunken heads) in Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum are mainstays of their collections.
Under pressure from indigenous groups, however, they have begun to give way. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted in 2007, enshrines a right to reclaim human remains, as does legislation in Britain, Australia and the United States, but not in Canada.
Scores of museums, including the British and Pitt Rivers museums, have drawn up repatriation policies and ethical codes on the treatment of remains. France's Museum of Man, where the skeletons of Abraham Ulrikab and his companions are stored, is willing to let them go, said France Rivet, author of a new book on the saga of the group.
"They are just waiting for a request from Canada," she said.
The petition has not come, Lough said, partly because "the Inuit way is to ensure that everyone is consulted."
The fragile state of Inuit communities makes that hard. Hebron, home to the Ulrikab family, was founded by Moravian missionaries. The settlement was abandoned in 1959 when the mission closed, however, and the family's descendants scattered. They must be traced to help decide where the remains should be buried and what sort of ceremony to hold. Nakvak, home to others in the original party, now lies in Torngat Mountains National Park. There are bureaucratic hurdles to using it as a burial site.
Only after the Inuit decide how to handle the remains can negotiations begin between the governments of Canada and France over releasing them and paying the costs of repatriation. Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada and President François Hollande of France agreed in 2013 to work toward repatriation.
South Africa waited eight years for Saartjie Baartman, "the Hottentot Venus," after President Nelson Mandela requested her return in 1994. For Abraham Ulrikab and his friends, at least, the journey home is beginning.