International Indigenous Repatriation: what happens at the border?


National consultation required regarding paperwork for shipping, security, and customs procedures when bringing ancestral remains and heritage items home across international boundaries.




Are you crossing international boundaries in your repatriation work?




Much of the literature on repatriation is about the early part of the process; very little of it concerns the actual paperwork required to release items legally or to ship items. There are almost no resources available online to guide Indigenous nations or museums in cases of international repatriation.


Calls for repatriation of Indigenous ancestral remains and heritage items are often thought of as occurring between museums and Indigenous nations within the same nation-state. These are subject to institutional policies and professional guidelines within the museum profession, and require careful research, negotiation, and finally paperwork to release the items legally from institutional owners. Bringing ancestors or cultural items home may be as simple as carefully boxing them and driving them to their destination, or may require air or specialised ground transportation.


When repatriation cases cross international borders, these administrative and logistical processes become far more complicated. Some of the issues involved are security procedures involved in international shipments, hygiene/medical certificates for ancestral remains being transported, and customs documentation required to import items into Canada. Indigenous delegations repatriating ancestral remains who wish to carry remains home on board an aircraft rather than in the hold are subject to additional requirements.


If the persons responsible for transport of repatriated remains/items get these issues wrong, the material can be seized and destroyed (incinerated) at the Canadian border, or the importer can face fees and fines.


I applaud the recent Indigenous Repatriation Handbook issued by RBCM and co-authored by Sdaahl K’awaas Luy Bell, Jisgang (Nika) Collison, and Lou-ann Neel. As a museum profession we need to further support processes of repatriation by providing copies of pro-forma invoices, letters attesting legal transfer of items, letters of sanitary hygiene [the “free from infection” statement that a physician must sign] for human remains, and documents provided for customs control that are crucial elements of international repatriation. The last dossier I assisted in preparing for the international shipment of an ancestral remains was 30 pages long. We need to work with Canada Customs to ensure that the museum profession and Indigenous nations have access to the correct customs codes and documents, and to train Canada Customs in Indigenous protocol requirements for importing items into Canada.


We need to support this knowledge development at a national level in Canada in order to take forward processes of reconciliation.

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