British Museum agrees to repatriate ancestors

  • Nov. 9, 2005 11:00 a.m.

They’ve been the slowest to catch on, says Skidegate Repatriation committee member Nika Collison, but finally the British Museum is willing to give back human remains.
The British Parliament passed section 47 of the Human Tissue Act, which now allows the museum to move human remains believed to be under 1,000 years of age out of its collection.
As the British Museum is one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious museums, this is big news for indigenous people. The law also applies to eight other national museums in Great Britain.
Ms Collison says, as far as they know, the Haida have one ancestor in the British Museum and one in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. But, the records regarding the history of the skeleton in the British Museum are not entirely clear.
“Originally, they happily labelled this person Haida, but now they are saying they are not sure,” she says.
Museum staff aren’t sure if the remains came from Alaska, Haida Gwaii, or if the person was possibly Tlingit, but a positive link to an aboriginal community must be made before anything is returned.
The Haida will send a working group to England two years, says Ms Collison, who notes there are also many cultural treasures in British museums she would like to see back on the islands.
“These aren’t on the table, but they seem very interested in working with First Nations,” she says. She and Vince Collison visited the British Museum a few years ago and spoke with the curator. While they were at the museum, a delegation from a First Nation in Alberta was also visiting. These people picked up a medicine bundle to bring home for a long-term loan.
She says the repatriation committees in Skidegate and Old Massett have a good relationship with a few British museums already and the British Museum has already asked for advice about films to present at an upcoming aboriginal film festival.
In the meantime, a representative of the British Working Group in Human Remains will be visiting Haida Gwaii at the end of November to discuss the new law, how it came to be, and how it affects the Haida.