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What the new museum’s cancellation means for returning Indigenous artifacts

First Nations across BC are seeking to repatriate items from the Royal BC Museum. This is what the process has been for the Haíłzaqv, Huu-ay-aht, and Tseshaht nations.

Hanna Hett
June 23, 2022
History
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

What the new museum’s cancellation means for returning Indigenous artifacts

First Nations across BC are seeking to repatriate items from the Royal BC Museum. This is what the process has been for the Haíłzaqv, Huu-ay-aht, and Tseshaht nations.

Hanna Hett
Jun 23, 2022
Photos: Antoine 29 via Flickr and Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily.
Photos: Antoine 29 via Flickr and Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily.
History
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

What the new museum’s cancellation means for returning Indigenous artifacts

First Nations across BC are seeking to repatriate items from the Royal BC Museum. This is what the process has been for the Haíłzaqv, Huu-ay-aht, and Tseshaht nations.

Hanna Hett
June 23, 2022
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What the new museum’s cancellation means for returning Indigenous artifacts
Photos: Antoine 29 via Flickr and Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily.

The BC government abruptly reversed course this week on its plans to rebuild the Royal BC Museum (RBCM). The announcement, in May, that the government would demolish and rebuild the museum for a price tag of $789 million resulted in a wave of criticism from opposition leaders, a slide in approval ratings, and criticism from some First Nations. 

On June 1st, Ken Watts, the chief counselor of Tseshaht Nation, posted an open letter addressed to Premier John Horgan and Minister Melanie Mark on social media, telling them that they had an “opportunity to support Nations to repatriate and build their own facilities.” 

Watts was surprised that First Nations hadn’t been consulted, and said he heard about the $789-million project at the same time as everyone else. He says he posted the letter not with the intent to derail the project, but to start a conversation with the RBCM and BC government about repatriation and decentralization. 

Watts listened to John Horgan’s announcement on Wednesday. He appreciated Horgan’s acknowledgment that he had been wrong: “We said, ‘Hey, put on the brakes, let’s have a conversation here,’” he told Capital Daily.  “If we’re really going to embrace this kind of government to government relationship, or supporting UNDRIP or DRIPA, or the constitution even, that’s a government to government conversation.”

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The premier suggested in his announcement that repatriation had been part of the plan for the new museum.

“We saw an opportunity to highlight our collective history, we saw an opportunity to continue to work on repatriation of indigenous artifacts, we saw the opportunity to create a modern state-of-the-art facility for the future and generations to come,” he said.

In the end, the BC NDP’s plans were upended by public backlash—largely over the project’s price tag—amid an ongoing housing crisis and primary care shortage.

“We thought we had it right. Clearly, we did not. I heard the people of British Columbia quite clearly that we were making the wrong decision at the wrong time,” Horgan said.

Horgan’s May announcement had attracted the attention of several First Nations who were in the midst of repatriation agreements with the RBCM. Troy Sebastian, a former curator of Indigenous Collections at the museum and member of the Ktunaxa First Nation, told CBC’s All Points West that “the days of the Royal BC Museum are over” and raised concerns about timelines with regard to seeing cultural items returned. 

Watts said that instead of investing in one sole museum, the province should invest in local and regional facilities, so that nations can display their own items—if they want to.

“Some nations want to keep their items at the Royal BC Museum. And that’s entirely up to them. It’s not what we want to do. We want to see items returned home,” he said.

The Tseshaht are among several First Nations looking at other options for their cultural property as the museum’s future remains up in the air—and with the premier announcing a return “to the drawing board,” some see an opportunity for a renewed conversation around where First Nations’ treasures belong.

Haíłzaqv First Nation

The deer hooves sewn onto Elroy White’s apron clack together loudly when he moves. That’s the point—he says they are meant to be “noisemakers,” and are usually worn while dancing. His wife had it made for him as a graduation gift nearly two decades ago. White, with his nephew, Charlie, and other members of the Haíłzaqv Nation, had gathered at the Royal BC Museum to repatriate three items which were either purchased or taken from their nation long ago.

One is the Boston Pole. It’s an eight-foot tall burial pole that once stood at hereditary chief Boston Humchitt’s gravesite near the modern village of Bella Bella, Haíłzaqv’s only town. (The chief’s nickname had been bestowed by an American sea captain.)

The next is the Yx̌viwa-Chief’s frontlet, a piece that belongs to a chief’s dancing headdress. It would have been buried with a chief, alongside the rest of his ceremonial regalia.

The last is a panel that once was the side of a Haíłzaqv ancestor’s burial box.

On the day that White gathered with his nephew and Nation members, April 12, 2022, they had a short, private ceremony at the museum. They sang ancestral Haíłzaqv songs and blessed the three items with eagle down. It is a symbol of peace and good will, as well as a way to cleanse and heal. It felt symbolic in the moment.

“The emotion behind it all was overwhelming. There wasn’t a dry eye,” White said. 

The three items were then transported back to Haíłzaqv, by vehicle, freight, and then ferry, and dropped at the Haíłzaqv Freight Office. A group of young men in a restorative justice program carried them to the Haíłzaqv Big House. The First Nation held another small ceremony, where  Haíłzaqv chiefs welcomed back the items. 

The Boston Pole returns to Haíłzaqv First Nation. Photo: Elroy White / Submitted

These items had spent decades upon decades in the RBCM, under the gaze of tourists, researched by archaeologists, or in storage. 

“They were on display for everyone else but the Haíłzaqv,” White said.

Those days are over. Haíłzaqv Nation and many other First Nations are in the works of bringing their belongings home from the RBCM. 

Why are there so many Indigenous belongings in museums?

Sitting inside the RBCM are the belongings of First Nations from across the province. The museum is currently working with around 15 different nations on repatriation, and they say that last year they returned 1,000 items to their rightful owners. The RBCM did not answer how many Indigenous items they currently possess, nor how many items they have that still need repatriating. 

Many of these items were acquired by museum collectors. In the early 1900s, the BC government and the RBCM became aware that museums around the world were commissioning collectors to obtain First Nation cultural treasures. “Any museum of any stature considered that their collection was incomplete if they didn’t have a totem pole,” said Kevin Neary, an anthropology consultant who works with a number of First Nations across BC.

Out of concern that too many First Nation cultural treasures were leaving the province, they hired their own museum collectors to travel BC. They purchased, stole, or otherwise removed thousands of the Indigenous items that make up the RBCM’s vast collection today. Many of them were purchased from First Nations, but the legitimacy of those purchases is in question given the circumstances of the time. 

Under the federal reserve system, resources First Nations people had accessed freely before were suddenly under provincial or federal jurisdiction. Off-reserve, they couldn’t fish, hunt, trap, or participate in any other activity without a licence, which they weren’t allowed to have. Much of their income was lost.

The Potlatch ban, added to the Indian Act in 1884 and in place until 1951, made it a criminal offense for anyone to participate in Potlatches (used to commemorate important events and to distribute wealth) and use their cultural treasures. 

Huu-ay-aht Nation 

When Edward Johnson was a child, his parents used to take him to the RBCM. There, they would look at Huu-ay-aht cultural treasures. He thinks his father, a master carver, liked to go there for artistic influence—“And to ensure that I knew that they belonged to us, that they came from our territory,” Johnson said.

Years later, Johnson led his own youth trips to Victoria. They stayed at Fort Rodd Hill and visited the RBCM. He repeated the same words to the kids that his father had told him: “This comes from our territory.”

Now a councillor for Huu-ay-aht Nation, Johnson is part of the efforts to bring many of these items back home. They are part of the Maa-Nulth First Nations who signed a treaty with BC in 2011, which included a repatriation agreement with the RBCM. The agreement divided Huu-ay-aht’s items about 50-50 between the nation and the museum. 

In 2016, Huu-ay-aht reclaimed 17 of their cultural treasures. Jeff Cook, a recently appointed hereditary chief representative on Huu-ay-aht council, felt a sense of pride seeing them come home. Some of the items had belonged to his grandfather. “In my lifetime, I’ve never experienced having stuff right at home,” he said.

“I can tell my children and my grandchildren, ‘Well, you know, that was part of our family history and culture.’”

Eighty more cultural treasures will be returned to Huu-ay-aht. In 2020, they received a $35,000 grant from the BC Museum Association, which they are using to construct a cultural building to display the repatriated items. They plan to lay the building's foundation this August and to open it next May. At its opening, they hope to have repatriated 39 artifacts. The additional 41 will return at a later date.

A screen that Huu-ay-aht Nation repatriated in 2016. Photo: Edward Johnson / Submitted

Just this May, the Huu-ay-aht went to visit and measure their treasures at the RBCM, so they could plan how to lay out their cultural centre. They saw things like harpoons, elk skin, encased pine gum, carving tools, and whale sinew. “[It was] like they were used yesterday,” Johnson said.

The two welcome figures that currently stand on either side of the RBCM’s cash register also belong to Huu-ay-aht, and will be repatriated as well. “That’s gonna be something else,” Johnson said.

Johnson and Cook both say they have a good relationship with the RBCM, with the former saying that they’ve been very accommodating. “They’re definitely understaffed, but they’ve been great.”

The RBCM has faced allegations of racism 

Not everyone is pleased with the RBCM. The museum has faced repeated allegations of racism in recent years. Both Lucy Bell, the former head of the museum’s First Nations Department and Repatriations Program, and Sebastian, the museum’s former Curator of Indigenous Collections, left the organization in 2019 and 2021, respectively, citing a culture of racism.

Sebastian publicly announced his resignation on Twitter, saying, “I am happy to leave that wicked place behind. Yet, as long as the museum continues to possess my family’s sacred items that were taken from us during residential school, I can never truly leave.”

The museum released a report a few months afterwards, admitting that it had been racist and discriminatory, and slow-moving on implementing the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (DRIPA), and that a number of its exhibits were colonial in nature. They promised to do better. 

Alicia Dubois, the RBCM’s CEO, wasn’t available for an interview with Capital Daily. But in an emailed statement, the museum said they are expanding the Indigenous Collections and Repatriation department to align with DRIPA legislation. 

“The RBCM is deeply committed to supporting Indigenous communities in the repatriation of their cultural belongings and ancestral remains. This work is fundamental to reconciliation and to our work at the Museum,” they wrote in the statement.

In January of this year, the third floor, with its pioneer-esque exhibits, was closed for modernization, before the demolition was announced and quickly shelved again this week.

Tseshaht Nation 

Watts envisions a different future for the Tseshaht items that currently are in the possession of RBCM: having a local or a regional facility, he believes, would be a potential tourism opportunity, especially given the number of tourists that drive through their nation on the way to Tofino or Ucluelet. He pointed to the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii, a world-renowned tourist attraction, as an example of the potential that a local museum can have, instead of a single central museum far from the artifacts’ original homes.

“There’s all of these items that are stored… in another nation’s territory, that the museum benefits from by showing other people. And I ask myself, ‘Well, how do we bring the energy of those items back to our original territory?’” 

To do that, however, they are in need of resources, funding, and capacity-building from both the province and museum. They will have to build the facilities to house their items, which will need climate control, display cases, and management of day-to-day operations. 

While Watts is aware that the RBCM offers some repatriation programs and grants that nations can apply for, he doesn’t think they should have to apply for a grant to bring back items that belong to them. And he says that this is an important part of reconciliation.

“It’s bringing back the things that actually belong to us, that were ours at one point in time, and they’re not anymore.”

Back to Bella Bella

This back-and-forth over the future of the museum and its contents is not new; it’s happening in the context of years of discussions. 

Five years ago, White was invited to Kelowna’s Delta Grand Okanagan for a symposium hosted by the museum. Museum leaders promised First Nations “repatriation without guidelines”—that they would shed the bureaucracy that had previously impeded them from bringing their cultural items home. This meant, for instance, that they wouldn’t have to have a museum or a climate-controlled building.

“After it leaves their property, they have no business with it,” White said.

Traditionally, carvings like totem poles have been allowed to decompose in place, under the elements, not stored in perpetuity.

Haíłzaqv plans to repatriate more of their belongings from the RBCM, but they need more funding to do so. The cost of travel, transportation, travel insurance, accommodation, and food quickly adds up. They received a $13,000 grant from the BC Museum Association for the most recent repatriation. While they are grateful for this, White hopes to see more either the museum, government, or donors step up to help fund the process.

In the meantime, they are happy to have these three items home. Back in Bella Bella, they will begin a community engagement process with the newly repatriated items. Repatriation of cultural artifacts is new to Haíłzaqv Nation, and so they are figuring it out—consulting community members, Elders, ladies of high rank, and chiefs whose lineage is in these grave items. 

“Now it’s up to us as First Nation people, the owners of these objects, to reinterpret them. It’s our history.” 

Correction at 12pm on June 23: Kevin Neary's profession has been corrected.

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Hanna Hett
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