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Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies Archives and Library: The transition to becoming a better ally

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By Mollie Riley, Young Canada Works Summer Student

In May of 2019, I was hired on a four month contract through Young Canada Works in the Whyte Museum Archives and Library. While I have only been working here for a short while, I have noticed an overwhelming effort in becoming better allies for Indigenous Peoples in our communities, but more broadly, in all communities. Both relieved and excited to be working for an organization that cares about their social footprint, I embarked on a journey to understand more. Below I have compiled a list of the ways in which the Whyte Archives and Library has been taking steps to become stronger, more supportive allies to Indigenous Peoples.

1) Accessible Information

Arguably, the most vital component in becoming an ally is through education and being informed. In order to stand with a group facing oppression, you have to understand your privilege, the problems being faced and the ways in which you can support the community. Upon entrance into the reference room, visitors and staff alike have access to a binder that reads, “READ ME: Indigenous Peoples Resources.”

The Indigenous Ally Toolkit held in the reference room of the Whyte Archives and Library

Within the binder, interested readers can delve into a comprehensive selection of resources that serve as an Indigenous Ally Toolkit. The information pertains to resources aimed at encouraging proper and sensitive language, dispelling myths, and promoting healthy relationships between Indigenous Peoples and non-Indigenous people.

Additionally, the Whyte Archives and Library is working to expand its collection of books pertaining to the Indigenous experience both in terms of subject and authorship.

A selection of books pertaining to the Indigenous experience, available in the reference room.

While most of the library is held alongside the archival material, we have ensured that a selection of books pertaining to Indigenous life continues to be accessible in the reference room. Accessibility of material is vital in terms of education, and we are doing our part in ensuring interested visitors can access the materials they need.

While we are constantly working to make materials more accessible for visitors, the Whyte Archives and Library additionally supports the learning and education of staff members. Recently, I completed reading a book edited by Gerald T. Conaty titled, We are Coming Home. The premise of the book is centered on the repatriation of sacred medicine bundles known as, Iitskinaiksi. For years, sacred materials have been wrongfully held in museums across the world, with a particular focus on materials held at the Glenbow Museum and the Provincial Museum of Alberta, now referred to as the Royal Alberta Museum.

We are Coming Home, edited by Gerald T. Conaty

The book follows the journey of various Indigenous Elders and allies who fought to have these sacred medicine bundles repatriated into Indigenous communities. Topics such as repatriation can be sensitive, polarizing and highly political, however, it remains an important issue. In part with becoming an ally, is learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Here in the Whyte Archives and Library we are constantly discussing uncomfortable topics in an effort to be more understanding, and become more educated about the realities Indigenous Peoples are facing.

2) National Indigenous Peoples Day

On June 21, 2019 staff from the Whyte Archives and Library had the privilege of attending National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canmore, AB. Prior to the event, the staff came together to organize a display that would be featured at the celebration. As a staff, we decided to challenge the common narrative surrounding the portrayal of Indigenous history in Banff. We opted to tell the stories and legacies of Indigenous families, rather than retell the history of Banff Indian Days, as it is so often portrayed. Additionally, we ensured that the photographs on display were removable. At times, Indigenous culture can be looked upon as being stagnant and historically rooted. We wanted to stand against this, and ensure that our display reflected the fluidity of Indigenous life, while celebrating a culture that continues to flourish in the present.

Display featured at National Indigenous Peoples Day, prepared by Whyte Archives and Library staff.

3) Peer Review and Collaboration

In the case of culturally sensitive material, as topics pertaining to Indigenous Peoples often can be, it is imperative that we are seeking the constructive opinions of our colleagues. It is vital that as a predominantly non-Indigenous staff, we are checking to ensure that we are speaking and working in a culturally sensitive, and appropriate way. Here in the Whyte Archives and Library, much of the work we do contains elements of collaboration. We function as a team and value the opinions, perspectives and expertise of our co-workers. Additionally, we collaborate with other members of the Whyte outside of the Archives and Library in order to gain a comprehensive understanding. As an ally, we value the opinions of others and know that outsourcing and working collaboratively is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness.

Dawn Saunders Dahl, the Whyte Museums Indigenous Program Manager is an invaluable resource to both the Whyte Museum and community at large. Dawn is of Metis ancestry – discovered later in life – and thus her work helps to bridge the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, as she herself is of both sides.

Image: DSD by Aaron Pederson

Dawn reflects on her work in the following quote, “… I am always learning something new from Elders and Communities I work with, which encourages me to share with others as we reconcile actively together.” We frequently collaborate with Dawn in hopes of gaining some of her expertise and knowledge, while ensuring that we are acting in culturally appropriate ways.

4) Educating non-Indigenous people

As a predominantly non-Indigenous staff, we are not in a position to tell of a history that is not our own. Telling the history of Indigenous Peoples without the inclusion of Indigenous voices is nothing less than a form of colonial aggression. Ultimately to be an ally is to exist in a position of privilege. As disappointing as the reality is, sometimes visitors ask questions that either contain offensive language, or are blatantly racist. In order to help educate non-Indigenous people, it is vital that the information is coming from an Indigenous source. In order to do so, we have ensured that we have an abundance of accessible resources that have either been authored by, or completed in collaboration with Indigenous Peoples, readily available in the reference room. Part of our work in being a stronger ally is not telling the Indigenous story for Indigenous Peoples, but rather re-directing to sources that come from Indigenous voices.

While there is, and always will be work to do, the Whyte Archives and Library is taking progressive steps in becoming betters allies for Indigenous Peoples. In late July, staff from the Whyte Archives and Library joined Dawn Saunders Dahl, the Indigenous Program Manager, at a Tsuu T’ina Powwow in Bragg Creek in an effort to share word of the Recognizing Relations project. I am encouraging you to get uncomfortable, become informed and educate yourself in order to become a better ally for Indigenous Peoples. Please feel free to stop by the Whyte Archives and Library in order to access our resources.

Further reading:

Indigenous Ally Tool Kit (PDF): https://segalcentre.org/common/sitemedia/201819_Shows/ENG_AllyTookit.pdf

Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. Blog:


First Nations Information Governance Centre:


For information regarding the repatriation of scared materials: https://royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/sites/default/files/indigenous_repatriation_handbook_rbcm_2019.pdf

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111 Bear Street, Banff, Alberta, T1L 1A3, Canada

T: 1 403 762 2291   

E: info [at] whyte.org

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The Whyte Museum gratefully acknowledges the support of The Peter and Catharine Whyte Foundation and the Alberta Foundation for the Arts

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