In 1927, human remains were removed from an abandoned Moravian church mission as part of the Rawson-MacMillan Sub-Arctic Expedition. During this expedition, members of the team excavated burials at eight archaeological sites in Labrador and at the 19th century Moravian cemetery in Zoar, on Labrador's north coast.
The aim was to collect natural history specimens and artefacts that could shed light on the Inuit people"s origins and lifestyle. However, many of the remains were removed over objections of the local population. At the behest of the Labrador Inuit community, the Field Museum of Natural History that had since housed the remains undertook to return them to their native soil, through cooperation with the Labrador Inuit and the Consulate General of Canada in Chicago.
The Labrador Inuit, with a population of 7200, are one of the founding peoples of Canada. They live on Canada's eastern coast, in an area that they call Nunatsiavut, which means "our beautiful land". Formally established in 2005 by the Labrador Inuit Land Claim Agreement, the Settlement Area covers a large expanse of land and sea, where the Labrador Inuit self-govern and have special rights to continue the longstanding traditions of their people.
Since the removal in 1927, the Nunatsiavut community never tired in their pursuit of reclaiming their ancestors' remains. The cultural arm of the Nunatsiavut Government – the Torngasok Cultural Center – played a key role in the process of repatriating the remains and in attempting to identify and contact the families. In 2008, the Torngâsok Cultural Centre (TCC) reached out to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, a leader in environmental conservation, evolutionary biology, palaeontology, and anthropology. They collaborated in the development and implementation of a strategy for the respectful return and reburial of the human remains.
This year, their collaborative efforts paid off with success. Johannes Lampe, Minister of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, led a delegation from Nunatsiavut that to Chicago to formally recover the remains stored at the Field Museum and prepare them for their return journey home. The delegation also included Isabella Pain, Senior Negotiator, and Jamie Brake, archaeologist. The Consulate General of Canada in Chicago proudly hosted the delegation and facilitated consultative meetings.
John W. McCarter, Jr., Field Museum President and CEO, offered his sincere apologies, stating, "We are deeply saddened by this incident. While Field Museum employees of today did not commit this wrong, we recognize that these actions did not comply with ethical archaeological practices, either past or current".
Minister Lampe and Ms. Pain shared with a large community audience their love for their native land and reminded attendees that while the Labrador Inuit story is a long one – one of adaptation to change brought about by colonialism, resettlement and dislocation from their traditions – it is also a story of how through strength of will they have re-established control over their cultural, economic and political destiny and continue to persist and defend this right.
This is not the first time the Torngasok Cultural Center has been involved in the repatriation of Inuit human remains. In the mid-1990s, the remains of some 100 Inuit were returned by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. The Center is responsible for the preservation, protection, promotion and advancement of Labrador Inuit language and culture. This role is vital to ensuring Labrador Inuit culture not only survives but thrives in today's world.
"I think this might be the first time since 1982 that Labrador Inuit have been here in Chicago to speak about who we are as a people,” remarked Pain. “Back then, 12 Inuit families were recruited to become a part of the Eskimo Village Concession at the World's Fair."
"When visitors came to the Eskimo Village, they left believing that they had a glimpse of how Inuit really lived. I invite you to come Nunatsiavut to visit us – I can guarantee that we are much more interesting in our homeland."
Every trial and tribulation endured, the Labrador Inuit were able to close the sad and controversial chapter in their community's history and honour the legacy of their ancestors, as the pathway to a brighter future for the nation opens.