Swiss perspectives in 10 languages

Geneva museum returns Native American sacred objects

Native American representatives in Geneva
Three representatives of Native American tribes were at the Museum of Ethnography in Geneva to take back their sacred objects. Julia Crawford,

The medicine mask and rattle that are returning to Canada have “power and spirit”, said a Native American representative at a restitution ceremony in Geneva’s Museum of Ethnography (MEG) on Tuesday.

The museum said this first restitution of sacred objects was part of a wider policy to give back cultural artefacts stolen in colonial times.

“This is a historic day for the museum, and also because the City of Geneva has formally recognised that the Haudenosaunee Nation is the owner of these objects,” said MEG director Carine Ayélé Durand. The mask and rattle, given to a Geneva museum in 1825 by Swiss historian and politician Amédéé-Pierre-Jules Pictet de Sergy, have been in the MEG’s collection for 200 years.

The museum, which has extensive collections from the four corners of the world, has in recent years embarked on a policy of inviting and cooperating with traditional communities and identifying the objects that could be returned to them. It says it will give priority to returning human remains, funeral artefacts and sacred objects.

‘It made me sad’

Three representatives from Canada of the Haudenosaunee people were in Geneva to take back their sacred objects. Clayton Logan told the well-attended gathering of press and public how their communities respect nature and use such masks, endowed with power from the Creator, according to their tradition, in ceremonies particularly to “help the grandchildren”.

Brennen Ferguson told how, on a visit to MEG in July last year, he had spotted the mask and rattle on display in glass cases. “The plaque said it had been there for 200 years. This made me sad,” he said. “It was like seeing a person neglected. There was some comfort in that his rattle was with him. Some museums, such as in the US, often separate them.”

Ferguson had lunch with the museum director and asked if the objects could be withdrawn from public display, which was not fitting, according to their tradition. He says this was done the same day. A formal demand for restitution was lodged a few weeks later and it has gone relatively fast.

“The museum here has been very co-operative and it should be a model for other museums,” said Haudenosaunee representative Kenneth Deer. “The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous PeopleExternal link, born here in Geneva, says we have a right to own our sacred items. Since then, the UN hasn’t done much, but there must be a mechanism for returning them to traditional people.”

Two First People representatives holding scared objects in boxes
The sacred mask and rattle will be taken back to Canada. Julia Crawford,

The Haudenosaunee representatives performed a tobacco-burning ceremony for the mask’s return and spoke traditional prayers in their own language. These are Native American Iroquois tribes living in parts of the US and Canada. According to a press release from MEG, “the Haudenosaunee Confederation is one of the oldest political entities operating continuously in the world. It has a constitution which dates from before the arrival of Europeans”.

More restitutions in sight?

Sami Kanaan, who holds the culture portfolio in the City of Geneva administration, said the return of these culturally valuable objects was a “moving moment” and that his administration supported rightful restitutions.

Asked by SWI if the MEG was planning more restitutions in the foreseeable future, museum director Durand said it was very likely. She pointed notably to a recent visit by a Nigerian delegation in the context of moves to return so-called Benin Bronzes. The MEG is part of an initiative by eight Swiss museums, supported by the federal government, to draw up an inventory of such artefacts.

Their report released last week concluded that more than half of Benin Kingdom exhibits in Swiss museums were probably looted by the British in the nineteenth century. Durand says her museum has nine of these artefacts and “it is very probable that we will get restitution requests soon”.

Popular Stories

Most Discussed

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

You can find an overview of ongoing debates with our journalists here . Please join us!

If you want to start a conversation about a topic raised in this article or want to report factual errors, email us at

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR