First Arts Returns Sacred Headdress to Northern Cheyenne Tribe

April 25, 2024

First Arts is proud to have facilitated the return of a sacred buffalo headdress to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.


This gesture of rematriation [1] represents a humble but significant step toward addressing historical wrongs and underscores our advocacy of the return of significant items to their rightful owners or communities.


This ceremonial headdress, traditionally adorned by esteemed members of the tribe's Women's Sewing Society, is a symbol of profound spiritual and cultural significance. Key features that affirm the buffalo headdress as a work of the Women's Sewing Society of the Northern Cheyenne tribe include distinctive designs, akin to "patented" patterns, crafted with protective prayers. Featuring intricate quilled loops and a vibrant yellow-red-yellow motif, the headdress stands as a testament to the exceptional skill and profound cultural contributions of its makers.


We understand the immense importance of such belongings to the heritage and spiritual practices of their communities of origin. With a guiding principle to respect and honour the cultural significance of this work, our initiative to return the headdress was driven by our responsibility to its rightful guardians.


Our journey to rematriate the headdress began when Mike Cowdrey, a renowned author and self-described “student [2]” in Native American history, facilitated contact between Nadine Di Monte and Keith Shoulderblade of the Cheyenne Nation. Keith, alongside his brother Thomas, continues the spiritual leadership of their late father, Don Shoulderblade — a revered Sun Dance priest and custodian of the Sacred Buffalo Headdress.


Keith Shoulderblade expressed his gratitude, saying, "These things are very important to our people, and they do belong to us. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for returning it to the people." He assured that the headdress would be cared for in accordance with traditional practices. 


While the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which Canada endorsed in 2016, emphasizes the significance of rematriating Indigenous cultural and spiritual items, comprehensive legislation on this matter remains undefined in Canada [3] [4]. Additionally, in our view, there seems to be limited regulatory support or incentives for collectors who acquired objects of cultural patrimony in good faith, during a period when the impropriety of such ownership was woefully neglected. While we do not claim to be experts in legislative processes, we respectfully suggest establishing clearer guidelines and recommend working closely with and with deference to Indigenous groups to create a definitive framework that identifies culturally significant items. 


With these considerations in mind, we hope that this act of rematriation underscores the importance of ethical stewardship and respect for cultural heritage. Should you seek guidance on items in your collection, we would be pleased to offer our confidential advice without any obligation.





We are immensely grateful to our American consignor, who has chosen anonymity, for their willingness to return this sacred belonging. Their understanding of its rightful place with its true guardians is a shining example of ethical stewardship.


To Mike Cowdrey, we are profoundly grateful for the additional information that he has provided. His detailed analysis and his efforts taken to assist us is immensely appreciated.


1. The author has chosen to use the term "rematriation" over "repatriation" to highlight the return of cultural items to Indigenous communities, acknowledging their predominantly matriarchal structures and the pivotal role of women, while also rejecting colonial terminologies.

2.  Mike Cowdrey uses the term “student” to emphasize deference to the expertise of Indigenous peoples regarding their own cultural heritage and history.


3. Initiated in 2023, the Indigenous Heritage component of the Museums Assistance Program (MAP) supports projects focused on preserving, managing, and presenting Indigenous cultural heritage, particularly rematriation efforts. According to the Canadian Heritage website, priority is given to proposals from Indigenous organizations or those involving collaboration with Indigenous groups. However, the extent of funding used for rematriation projects and the specific institutions involved is not known to us.


4. Bill C-391 (An Act respecting a national strategy for the rematriation of Aboriginal cultural property) was introduced in the Canadian House of Commons by Liberal Member of Parliament Robert-Falcon Ouellette in 2018. The bill aimed to establish a national strategy for the rematriation of Indigenous cultural property, including sacred objects, ancestral remains, and other items of cultural significance that have been removed from Indigenous communities in Canada. However, Bill C-391 did not progress beyond the first reading in the House of Commons and ultimately did not become law. 


Despite this, the bill highlighted the ongoing discussions and efforts in Canada to address the rematriation of Indigenous cultural property and the importance of collaboration between Indigenous communities and institutions in this process. Rematriation policies are essentially on an ad-hoc basis for institutions in Canada. Well-known institutions that have their own rematriation policies include but are not limited to: University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology (MOA), Royal British Columbia Museum (RBCM), Canadian Museum of History, Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), Glenbow Museum, Manitoba Museum, McCord Museum, Museum of Anthropology at the University of Winnipeg, Canadian Museum of Nature, National Gallery of Canada. To our knowledge, no country’s laws presently address the private sector regarding rematriation.

About the author

Nadine Di Monte


Great initiative and clearly the right thing to do.

Kudos on making this happen to you and the American consignor.

Thank you for sharing this.
Norman Melamed
25 April 2024

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