St. Paul businessmen
found birchbark artifact on auction website
Sean Blanchet, left,
and Robert Snell, owners of Revere Auctions in St. Paul talk
in their gallery Monday, May 17, 2021 about their efforts
to return culturally sensitive items to the countries or people
groups from which the items originated. The two recently worked
with a Boston auction house to retrieve a century-old birchbark
scroll and return it to the the White Earth Indian Reservation,
home to the Ojibwe people, in northwestern Minnesota. (Deanna
Weniger / Pioneer Press)
An Ojibwe scroll lost since the late 1800s is on its way home,
thanks to the efforts of two St. Paul businessmen.
Sean Blanchet and Robert Snell, owners of Revere Auctions, noticed
an Ojibwe birchbark scroll with Minnesota ties pop up on a Boston
auction website. Thinking it may be of cultural relevance to the
local Ojibwe, Blanchet contacted the auction house and offered to
buy it outright. He also reached out for help from other interested
parties and donors.
On Saturday, he learned the business had taken the scroll out of
the auction and offered it to him for purchase, a move that surprised
him and pleased advocates of the Ojibwe.
Im thrilled to see it happen, said David Chang,
a history professor at the University of Minnesota who assisted
Blanchet in his appeal. It is really very meaningful to bring
this back home. This is a sacred object, an item that is a living
ancestor to practicers of the Miteiwin religion.
THEY ARE OUR ANCESTORS
The four-by-four-inch scroll is composed of four sections of birchbark
lashed together with hide ties. The pages are coiled
and carved with images and landscapes relevant to specific and private
There are very, very select few people who have actually
earned the right to care for them, to read them, to interpret them
and use them in ceremony, explained Shawon Kinew, a member
of the Ojibwe tribe and a Harvard professor. Its really
a privilege thats earned over years. We consider them to be
living beings, and so, to be separated from them is really a very
Skinner Auctioneers in Boston said the piece originated from a
private collection in St. Paul. It had changed hands a few times
before coming up for sale at Skinners. The auction house estimated
its value to be between $1,500 to $2,500. The company released a
statement on its decision Monday.
Skinner stands alongside all indigenous peoples rights
claims, and we evaluate each on a case by case basis, the
company said. In this particular instance, we were able to
work with the consignor and affiliates (or a friend of) of the Ojibwe
community to develop a solution to address and satisfy all those
For the Ojibwe people, the scrolls value is immeasurable.
These scrolls are repositories and vessels of the sacred
knowledge of the Ojibway, Kinew said in a letter she wrote
to Skinner. We refer to them as our grandfathers. We care
for them as we do biological, human ancestors we feast and
visit with them, we care for them in ceremony.
HOME TO WHITE EARTH
The Ojibwe name, which also can be spelled Ojibway or Ojibwa, is
synonymous with Chippewa or Anishinaabe. Their territory once extended
across Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and up into Canada. There
are seven Chippewa reservations in the state. The scroll will find
a new home in the White Earth Reservation which is located in Becker,
Clearwater and Mahnomen counties in northcentral Minnesota.
Jaime Arsenault, the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the
White Earth Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, will oversee the
She was traveling Monday and unable to be reached for comment.
RECLAIMING LOST PROPERTY
Auction houses, which serve as a middleman between buyers and sellers,
have come under fire in the past for negotiating deals involving
antiquities from countries or cultures who claim said items were
The United States has, over the past century, tried to curb these
types of sales through legislation, especially relating to Native
The laws provide a process for tribes to make a claim to repatriate
items they believe belong to them. The claims take time and money
and, unless the items are human remains, the question of who really
owns them is often disputed. A claim can also attract attention
and drive up the value of the item, as it did in 2018 in southern
Minnesota with a pipe owned by a Dakota chief from the late 1800s.
The Prairie Island Indian Community in Red Wing made a claim for
the pipe, but was unsuccessful. Because the claim was in dispute,
the donor, representing the tribes interests, was forced to
bid on it. By the time it sold, the price had doubled the high estimate.
To the relief of the Indian community, the buyer, who paid $40,000
for it, donated it back to Prairie Island.
HOW AUCTION HOUSES CAN HELP
Advocates, like Blanchet and Snell, would like to see auction houses
give interested communities the opportunity to purchase the items
before they go to auction and disappear into private collections.
The two move quickly to notify interested parties whenever they
come across a culturally sensitive item.
Ideally, they would like to see the consignor donate the item back
to the tribe, but in most cases, the item will need to be purchased.
Revere Auction fronted the money to buy the scroll once Skinner
took it out of the auction. Donors will help reimburse the costs.
Blanchet, whose parents both worked for the Indian Health Service
in the medical field, said his upbringing exposed him to the Native
American culture and gave him an understanding of what items, like
the scroll, mean to those communities.
He and Snell learned about the role auction houses can play in
advocating for the return of these items, after putting several
Native American items up for auction a few years ago. They were
contacted by the Association on American Indian Affairs which works
to bring cultural items home.
Now we write to the tribes right away and ask, Hey,
is this significant?' Blanchet said. They are shocked
that an auction house would care what they think.
Revere also will put a sevenday hold on items going through their
business to give tribes a chance to make a claim and acquire the
item, either by donation or by raising funds, before it goes to
auction. In the past few years, theyve returned a pipe, a
fly whisk and a ceremonial ghost dance shirt.
Blanchet suspects Skinners good-will gesture means a shift
This shows that they are signaling a more progressive leadership
position in terms of the handling of sensitive cultural properties,
Deanna Weniger can be reached at 651-228-5556 and email@example.com,
or on Twitter at @dlweniger.