By Mark Graham and Jennifer Doubt
Even though we try to use our museum powers for good, there are times when things go wrong. Collectors—both amateur and professional—are dedicated and extremely passionate about what they do. That enthusiasm for collecting can sometimes lead to problems, like one that started in the Arctic in the late 1950s.
At that time, a young botanist working for the federal government was conducting field studies in the High Arctic. Many of these early northern studies were proactive components of Canada’s Cold War effort, in case we needed to send troops to the North. Others helped to prepare for oil and gas pipelines leading south, and expanded southern understanding of large-scale wildlife issues. Common goals for these investigations were to document the land cover and the plants and wildlife that inhabited it. Examples of plants and animals were intensely collected and saved as evidence of their work. Among the samples: a lichen, growing, unfortunately, on a human skull.
We can’t know the circumstances, considerations or discussions that surrounded this find, but we do know that the 1950s were not a proud time for Canada’s treatment of Inuit people. In this case, the lichen’s specimen value was given priority, and it was taken from the resting place of the bones to which it was permanently attached. Thus began a decades-long ethical challenge.
The collector delivered the sample to the museum, which employed a lichen specialist. To this day, we receive many specimens each year and consider carefully which donations are appropriate for the national collection. We believe that there was discomfort with keeping the skull—the scientific collection at the Canadian Museum of Nature does not include human remains—but there was also discomfort with the possible approaches to not keeping it, now that it was in Ottawa. This particular lichen specimen was never taken into the national collection, but was set aside in a secure cabinet and left. Time passed, and times changed.
In the past three years, with the efforts of excellent archaeologists and museum colleagues, the history and location of the collection site were traced, and a few small clues were gleaned about the person to whom the skull belonged—an Inuit woman—who had lived so far away. Equipped with this information, we could approach the Elders’ Committee in Tuktoyaktuk (the nearest settlement to the collection site at Toker Point), to seek guidance and to arrange to return her remains to the North.
In August 2014, on a modern-day expedition to this town in the farthest northwest corner of the Northwest Territories, the skull, with its lichen, were returned to the Arctic, exactly 57 years from the time they were taken. We are deeply grateful to everyone who helped us on this return path, from its first uneasy steps to its long northward journey.