Pauline Poundmaker, Brown Bear Woman’s Sacred Repatriation Journey

Chief Poundmaker’s great, great granddaughter on ROM, repatriation, and reconciliation.

On May 23, 2019, 134 years after Chief Poundmaker was found guilty of treason and sentenced to three years in a Manitoba penitentiary, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood on the “sacred lands of the Poundmaker Cree Nation” and apologized.

“We recognize that during his lifetime Chief Poundmaker was not treated justly nor showed the respect he deserved as a leader of his people,” Trudeau said. “If we are to move forward together on the path of reconciliation, the Government of Canada must acknowledge the wrongs of the past.”

Among the many in attendance that day was Pauline Poundmaker, Brown Bear Woman, then Pauline Favel, the great, great granddaughter of the revered Chief. You can see her in a photograph from that day, onstage, as she shakes the Prime Minister’s hand. But this, she tells me, was just the beginning.

Since that day, Pauline Poundmaker, Brown Bear Woman, embarked on what she called her “spiritual journey”—returning her great, great grandfather’s belongings to her family. (Many of his belongings were seized after his arrest and later scattered across Europe and North America.)

Last year, in Battleford, Saskatchewan, Parks Canada returned Chief Poundmaker’s sacred staff. And on February 22, 2023, ROM returned his pipe and saddle bag during a repatriation ceremony at the Museum. Respectively acquired by ROM in 1936 and 1924, his belongings were finally coming home.

On that day in February, during a sliver of calm before the ceremony, Pauline Poundmaker, Brown Bear Woman sat down with me in a quiet corner of the fifth floor of the Museum, overlooking the winter-grey city below. Warm and unguarded, she talked about repatriation, working with museums, and Chief Poundmaker’s legacy.

Your great, great grandfather’s pipe and saddle will be returned to you in just moments. What’s going through your mind?

When you think of the enormity of this day, it’s beyond description.

I'm the daughter of Alma Poundmaker. And in 1967, her and her brother were our representatives when they first brought [Chief] Poundmaker home [to be reinterred]. And they used to call her when they were doing Centennial commemorations to come on behalf of the Poundmaker family. I was given that opportunity in 2019 when Poundmaker was exonerated. But now I've been given this honour of leading the repatriation on behalf of my family. So, it means a lot. It's a spiritual journey. It’s a historical journey. And you are also a part of sharing our story.

Last year Parks Canada returned Chief Poundmaker’s staff to you. And today ROM is returning more of his belongings. How did this all begin?

It was a family decision. But it was also a spiritual decision. Because these objects have spirits. The sacred ceremonial objects are alive, and we were told: “It's time.” But we are the family, and we made the decision—it's time to bring our great, great grandfather’s artifacts and objects home.

Many of Chief Poundmaker’s belongings are scattered across North America and Europe. So, what’s next?

It’s going to be quite busy.

I wrote several letters in the fall, in the middle of getting Brown Bear Woman Foundation Inc. registered, to museums in Canada and Europe, letting them know who we are, who I am, why we want to repatriate, and we had a couple responses. More recently, a Saskatchewan institution responded to tell us they had two items of Poundmaker’s. And we also had an eastern institution respond saying, yes, we have a couple of Poundmaker’s items, and we’d like to begin our conversation with you.

Both of those places are aware of the repatriation we're doing here. So, we will resume our conversations with those two when we get back.

As museums like ROM reckon with their colonial past, they're trying to rebuild relationships with Indigenous communities. What’s the best way to do this?

The best way is to be open and listen. The colonial part, the part that might not be the best way, is to tell people “We have our museum policies”—and that’s the only information you communicate to us. You need to be open to the fact that many Indigenous people—and we're different nations across Canada—follow strict universal repatriation laws. For some, only the family can come get their objects. Even just being open to hearing that and putting the thinking aside of, “Well, we have our policies,” that's the best way. And we found working with Fort Battleford and with ROM, you were able to listen to us. And when we arrived, you wanted to know what needs to be done.

In 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally exonerated Chief Poundmaker and apologized for his conviction of treason. Now, it seems, Canadians are finally beginning to learn the truth about your great, great grandfather. So, what do they need to know?

The government’s attitude back then was harsher towards our people. They didn't recognize us for who we were and that we were Indigenous. We were here first. They were the visitors, not us.

When I talked to my Elder this summer, I said, “What can you tell me about Poundmaker?” In Cree, she told me, “He was a very kind man, and he was known for that.” He was wrongly accused of treason—it shouldn't have been that way. But it happened. You can never change the past.

That whole process of the exoneration was huge. But the process of Poundmaker’s story wasn't complete yet. This is the next part of the of his story—to bring his sacred belongings home.

Everything we’re going through is an educational experience. We're teaching you about us, our family. You're teaching us about ROM, about your space here. It's a historical moment, and the next generation will know these stories. This will be on record at ROM, this conversation you're having with a direct descendant of Chief Poundmaker. This is healing.

And we do not do this alone. We have a lot of prayers back home. We know that our ancestors are with us through prayers. Our families are with us. The enormity of this moment is beyond us, but we are so honored to be part of what’s going on. How honoured are we? And how honoured are you to be a part of this?

I'm very honoured.

What's going on today is helping other museums, too. They’re going to know we were here, and there are other repatriations going on in Canada. You're paving the way for other museums.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.