By: Julia Peterson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix

BATTLEFORD — Generations after a leadership staff was taken from Chief Poundmaker, the historic artifact that belonged to one of the great Indigenous leaders of the 19th century has been returned to his family.

The impact of the staff being taken more than 130 years ago from the chief and his community is hard to overstate, said the curator of a museum named in honour of the chief. The significance of its return is monumental, one of Poundmaker’s direct descendants said.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” said Pauline Poundmaker, Brown Bear Woman — a great-great-granddaughter of Chief Poundmaker.

“He was a very important man, and it’s an honour to bring his personal belongings, his sacred artifacts, his objects home, so his spirit can rest.”

At a private ceremony on Wednesday at the Fort Battleford Historic Site, representatives from Parks Canada presented the staff to Pauline Poundmaker.

Chief Poundmaker — whose Cree name is Pitikwahanapiwiyin — protected the interests of the Cree during Treaty 6 negotiations and stood up for his people at the time of the 1885 Northwest Resistance. In 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau exonerated Poundmaker, who had been convicted of treason. He died in 1886, shortly after his release.

Floyd Favel, curator of Chief Poundmaker Cree Nation’s museum, called the staff “the key to Indigenous leadership.“

“(So) by taking it away, it was like taking the constitution of a country.”

According to Favel, Chief Poundmaker used his staff as a vital part of governance, ceremony and community life.

“He could lead a whole pow wow with this,” Favel said. “It brings the people behind you … leading them into the future.”

The staff has largely been kept in provincial or federal museums. With its fine carvings, bright brass studs and horse-hair plume, it has often been mislabeled as a “war club” and put on display upside-down like a weapon, Favel said. Researchers are still tracing the exact history of the staff, but it was most recently in the custody of Parks Canada, which holds a large collection of historical and cultural objects throughout the country.

Under Poundmaker Cree Nation law and protocol, artifacts must be repatriated to a direct descendant of the person to whom they belonged. The family will then serve as custodians of the object on behalf of the First Nation.

Parks Canada loaned the staff to the Cree Nation in 2017. In 2021, the Poundmaker family formally requested its return.

Adriana Bacheschi, the Parks Canada permanent field unit superintendent for Saskatchewan South, said she was “very honoured and happy and thrilled” to have been able to fulfill the family’s request in a “real, tangible” way.

Pauline Poundmaker said she sees this repatriation as an “opportunity to create a new memory in our relationship with Canada.” Her mother, who “was always so proud to be Poundmaker,” would have been deeply moved to see the staff returned, she added.

Still, much work remains, she said. She believes between 20 and 30 more of Chief Poundmaker’s belongings are currently held by museums in Canada, the United States and Europe that should be returned to the family.

“We know these items have life,” she said. “In our culture, our objects have life. There is power to these objects. That’s why these artifacts don’t belong in museums.

“(They) should be taken care of by the families.”

Milton Tootoosis, who served as the emcee for Wednesday’s ceremony, said he hopes to see more of Chief Poundmaker’s belongings returned in the near future. He has personally seen some displayed at the British Museum in London and the RCMP Heritage Museum in Regina, he said.

“Since then, I’ve been intrigued. What else is out there?”

The family plans to loan the staff back to Parks Canada until the chief’s belongings can be moved to a private museum on the Poundmaker Cree Nation. It is Pauline Poundmaker’s goal to bring all the artifacts back.

“Today is page one,” she said. “There are more pages to this story.”

(Photo of Chief Poundmaker’s Staff being returned to his family. Courtesy of Parks Canada)