Ancestral remains carried home to rest

  • Oct. 22, 2003 2:00 p.m.

The ancestral remains of 132 Haida people returned to the islands last Sunday, and will be buried in the land of their birth this weekend, Heidi Bevington writes.
The trip to Chicago to recover the ancestors was “draining and tiring for everybody, but pretty exciting at the same time,” says Andy Wilson of the Skidegate repatriation committee.
And recovering the ancestors was bittersweet for Vince Collison of the Old Massett repatriation committee. This trip the skeletons of many children were recovered, and the committee worked with heavy hearts he says, but the experience was fulfilling as well.
Forty people went to Chicago Oct. 10 to recover their ancestors from the Field Museum. The trip was the culmination of a year of preparing bent wood boxes and raising money. They returned Sunday (Oct. 19), preparing for the reburials. Old Massett will bury their ancestors with a ceremony and feast on Saturday (Oct. 25), and Skidegate will do the same Sunday (Oct. 26).
The whole trip went smoothly, says Mr. Collison. Everyone in the delegation worked well together, and the museum employees were wonderful. “No request was denied,” he says. A younger generation of curators who are very respectful of the elders is now working in museums.
The committees were unsure how long the transfer would take, and scheduled three days, but in the end the process took a day and a half. Each day began with a food burning ceremony with traditional Haida foods like salmon and roe-on-kelp brought specifically for that purpose. The burning took place outside of the museum, in cold, blustery weather.
“What was amazing to me was that the elders came out for the whole ceremony,” says Mr. Collison. “Our older generation of Haidas is very strong. They are the descendents of those who survived TB and smallpox.”
After the ceremony, they broke into three groups. On the museum’s third floor, the ancestors were kept in cabinet drawers. Each drawer had to be taken out, the contents checked against a catalogue number and then the drawer carefully transferred to a cart. A second group moved the cart to the transfer room on the second floor. There the largest group worked, wrapping the bones in muslin and placing them in boxes padded with cedar shavings.
Andy Wilson recalls the first time Haida ancestors returned to the islands. A previous curator of the Haida Gwaii Museum had stolen them when he left. He returned the bones wrapped in plastic wrap and tinfoil. People were so appalled by the disrespect that they vowed to see to the process for themselves in the future.
This process went very smoothly, says Mr. Wilson. About half the group had participated in previous repatriations before.
The repatriation committees have invested six years to recover their ancestors from North American museums. Mr. Wilson estimates the project has cost about half a million dollars so far, not including donations and volunteer time. The community raised all the money itself.
Why spend all that time and effort to recover the bones of people long dead? Respect is the most important reason, says Mr. Wilson. “The ancestors were not respected. These ancestors have living descendents in Old Massett and Skidegate. We are connected to them through our grandmothers and grandfathers.”
Mr. Wilson is also motivated by a desire to honour his elders. “Our grandmothers and grandfathers probably knew this was going on, but they couldn’t do anything about it because of the laws of the time, and the people who enforced those laws like the Department of Indian Affairs, the churches, the RCMP and the government. Our population started to grow and we realized we could accomplish this now and we have the education and resources for the task,” he says.
The next step-to recover ancestors from museums further away like Britain, but for now, Mr. Wilson wants to stay focused on North America.
“We look at repatriation as the first step of working with the museums,” says Mr. Collison. “Museums are changing how they look at their collections. We want to have a say in how they tell our story.”
Both Mr. Wilson and Mr. Collison agree museums have a role in helping people understand Haida culture, but can do this without stolen artifacts. “Their role is to return those things taken illegally, and then work with the Haida people,” says Mr. Wilson. He cites the example of America’s new National Museum of the American Indian where native people select the artifacts used in exhibits, create their interpretation and participate in the opening ceremonies.
This Haida project is having an impact on other native communities, says Mr. Wilson. “I think one of the most important things that has come out of this is that we’ve been able to talk to other native groups that their ancestors are in museums and they have to approach the museums. The museums won’t approach them.”
People are invited to the burial ceremonies and feasts this weekend, but are asked not to take photos of the burial itself out of respect for the ancestors.
On Saturday the Old Massett memorial service will be at St. John’s Anglican Church at 2 pm followed by a feast at Howard Phillips Hall at 5.
On Sunday, the Skidegate memorial service will be at the George Brown Community Centre at 1 pm followed by a feast at 6 pm.
Please bring cutlery and bowls to both feasts.