Beyond Property and Trade:
Establishing a Community Loans Program

Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute

“… Aanischaaukamikw flows from the knowledge that Cree culture must be captured, maintained, shared, celebrated, and practiced… it is a living, breathing symbol of the James Bay Crees’ determination to preserve and share the stories and legends, the music, the pictures, and the physical objects that show this First Nations people’s unique interaction with the land, expressed through hunting, fishing, trapping, and underscored with a reverence for the land they have walked since time immemorial.”
Mission and Vision, Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute

Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute (ACCI) opened in 2011, after decades of planning by Eeyouch Elders and community members. Located in Ouje-Bougoumou, ACCI is the regional cultural institute for Eeyou Istchee, a self-governing region in what is now known as Quebec composed of 10 Eeyouch nations: Whapmagoostui (Great Whale), Chisasibi (Fort George), Eastmain, Wemindji (Paint Hills), Waskaganish (Rupert’s House), Nemaska, Waswanipi, Ouje-bougoumou, Mistissini and Washaw Sibi. Our activities include educational programming related to Eeyou culture, management of a cultural archive, library, museum collection, and permanent exhibition. Our mandate above explains our mission, which we imbue with our Eeyouch values. 

Eeyou (pl. Eeyouch) means ‘the people’ in the Eastern Cree coastal dialect. Eenou / Eenouch is the equivalent in the Eastern Cree inland dialect. Both dialects are used in Eeyou Istchee.

Caring for our Belongings in a Good Way

One of the unique collections related programs we have developed to support our mission is our Community Loans Program. This program takes standard museological principles related to loans and revises them to serve the needs of our community members. It also expresses our evolving decolonised approaches to conventional Euro Western museology as we seek to incorporate belongings that are still in use, and their contexts of use, into our research and exhibits.

It enables active engagement with community members seeking a secure location to store cultural belongings in a good, respectful way with procedures that centre the needs of our community members, and respect their wishes for how their belongings are used. The principles of our community loans program permit lenders to state restrictions for the use of their belongings. For example, sacred and ceremonial possessions may need a secure storage location however they can only be handled by family members.

We currently have over 30 community loans, some of which contain multiple objects. When permitted, we incorporate these collections into our ‘permanent’ display Aa Chiiwaaschaaniwich (Reclaiming the Ways of our Ancestors), and about half of these loans are included in our travelling exhibit Footprints: A Walk through Generations. Collections usually come with an enormous amount of rich contextual information and sometimes there are even photographs of the objects being used that we can include in displays. For example, former Grand Chief Matthew Mukash lent us his Chief’s jacket, he told us it was given to him in a feast when he was first elected in 2005, along with other gifts. He said, “My Elders told me that such a gift carries a spirit of great honour, whom will stay with me until my journey on the Earth plane ends.”

While the underlying philosophical concepts behind this program might not be immediately obvious to our visitors, it is important to our ways of working as an institution as we rethink and revise our museological approaches to fit within the Eeyouch world view. A visitor might only see a ‘temporarily removed’ label in our Baby Care themed case, indicating a model enamel cup and plate were removed by the lender. What they don’t see is that these were removed for use in a Walking Out Ceremony (see sidebar), as part of the outfit worn by the lender’s daughter. The family wanted the outfit to incorporate elements from ceremony of their son that took place a few years prior. The details of this continual use of belongings in their cultural context is not necessarily shared with visitors in text or labels but may be orally explained by a guide in an appropriate moment.

Our community loans currently total 32 objects. The following categories describe the motivations of the lenders and our institutional desires:
44% For our travelling exhibit — Footprints: A Walk through Generations
29% For safe keeping and display; these include precious belongings made or owned by family members or friends and things made for ceremonial uses
9% Objects with special status; these include clothing worn by Chiefs
6% Objects that enhance our displays
6% Cultural belongings that need conservation advice or treatment
3% Precious objects not from the region but that demonstrate spectacular craft working
3% Artwork with community connections

Previously we also administered loans of specific types of belongings for displayed in our Featured Objects case in the Elders Hall where visitors enter the building. This includes over fifty examples of beadwork barrettes and sixteen pihchishaapunikiniwit (sewing kits) that were used in a display organised by the Wellness & Culture Department in the Cree Nation of Wemindji.

Walking Out Ceremony

From birth a child is carried and does not touch the ground outside until ready to begin walking. The “Walking Out Ceremony” is usually held at sunrise when flowers first bloom. It is the first time a child sets foot on Mother Earth and is formally introduced to the land and animals that sustain us. Community Elders, family, and invited guests come together to witness this momentous and joyous event. The clothing and accessories worn for this ceremony are usually made specifically for this occasion, and often include parts made or worn by family members previously.

Tips for an Effective Community Loans Program

If you are interested in starting a community loans program, these are some points to keep in mind:

  • Centre the needs of the lender at all times. If they need the belonging back it is important to be able to meet their requests in a timely fashion. We accommodate temporary removal requests and return requests promptly as a matter of urgency. The time frames are listed in the documentation prepared for lenders: within 24 hours verbal or written request for temporary removals; and within 7 working days for permanent returns. These are ambitious, but we have found in practice they are workable in most cases.
  • Create a Community Loans fact sheet to record all of the important points about the loan that you can give to the lender with the loan agreement. Make sure this document is written without specialist museum language or acronyms.
  • Consider offering free admission for the lender and their guests, this will encourage lenders to bring their visitors to the museum.
  • If the lender permits their belongings to be displayed, be sure to let them know when it is going on and off display.
  • Be sure the lender knows they can visit their belonging at any time, whether it is on display or not. We request as much advance notice as possible, but we make every effort to accommodate every request regardless of the timeframe.
  • Ensure the lender specifies any requirements or restrictions for their belongings. For a collection of ceremonial belongings related to hunting, the lender stated the collection should not be counted. We found ways to record the extent of the collection using photographs to respect these wishes.
  • If possible, return loans in conservation grade storage materials to assist with long term storage preservation.
  • If possible, provide the lender with high resolution images of their belongings on a USB or CD.

At present, our online collections database features our permanent object, archival and library collections [] but we will likely expand this to include the community collections on loan, if lenders approve.

For Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute, our emerging collections based programs merge the needs of our communities with what we choose to take from existing museological standards and align with the world view and values of our nation. The words of Métis artist and scholar David Garneau parallel our desires for our cultural centre, part of which are expressed by our community loans program:

“Every culture circulates around a set of objects and spaces that are beyond property and trade. They are the national treasures, sacred sites and texts, symbols that are a community’s gravitational centre. The objects and their protection define the culture; they hold its many parts in orbit.” 1

1. David Garneau, “Imaginary Spaces of Conciliation and Reconciliation: Art, Curation, and Healing,” In Arts of Engagement: Taking Aesthetic Action In and Beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, edited by Dylan Robinson and Keavy Martin (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2016): 25.

About the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute

Aanischaaukamikw, the Cree Cultural Institute, is a museum, archive, library, teaching centre, and cultural centre, developed in collaboration with all Eeyou communities in Eeyou Istchee. It helps “complete the circle” of the James Bay Crees’ quest to exercise full control over all aspects of their lives, communities, and cultural destiny. The travelling exhibit, Footprints: A Walk through Generations, will be at the Canadian Museum of History from May-November 2019.

  This museological report has been made possible through funding from the Government of Canada. This report was also published in Muse Magazine, January/February issue, 2019.