Confrence participants learn of ancestral remains at SFU

  • May. 26, 2004 12:00 p.m.

The local repatriation committee has formally requested the return of Haida remains from Simon Fraser university, after learning about their existence at last week’s repatriation conference in Old Massett.
In a presentation Friday afternoon (May 21) in front of more than 100 people in the Old Massett community hall, SFU assistant archeology professor Eldon Yellowhorn said that the university has four Haida ancestors in its collection – and would like to return them. Three are adults, and one is a child under 10, he said.
Repatriation committee member Andy Wilson responded immediately, telling Mr. Yellowhorn that the committee would like the remains returned to Haida Gwaii.
SFU’s collection of human remains comes from various sources, Mr. Yellowhorn said. Some people bring in remains which they uncover during development, and others donate remains which have been in their family for many years after having been taken.
The university looks after these as best it can, and Mr. Yellowhorn said he has tried to bring some humanity to the crypt where they are stored by lining the cement walls with cedar.
“We can’t ignore the fact these were somebody’s ancestors,” he said.
Mr. Yellowhorn, a member of the Peigan Nation of southern Alberta and the first native faculty member at SFU, said some First Nations are not ready to deal with the return of human remains. In his own nation, he said, people were caught off guard by the sudden return of remains, and had no traditions to deal with the event. But after several years new traditions were developed for repatriation.
Mr. Yellowhorn also urged young native people to consider studying archeology, saying they bring a unique perspective to the field.
“I would like to see more native people coming into our program as undergraduate or graduate students,” he said. “I would like to see every First Nation have their own home-grown archeologist… It’s a tough program and requires a lot of hard work, but nothing worth having is ever easy.”
Other speakers on the first day of the conference included Helen Robbins of the Chicago Field Museum, which returned Haida human remains last year, Catherine Bell of the University of Alberta, who is working on a collaborative project with First Nations partners on the legalities of repatriation, and Robert Patterson of UBC, who spoke about the repatriation situation in New Zealand.
On Saturday during the Haida Repatriation session, Nika Collison told participants that while outright theft was a reason why some artifacts left the islands, it is not the only reason. “None of the ways that (ancestors and objects) left are right, but it wasn’t always outright theft,” she said, adding that not respecting another culture was an underlying reason why human remains and objects left the islands. She said that “Â…there is now agreement that it’s beneficial for everyone to return our Haida ancestors home to Haida Gwaii”.
Ms Collison also noted that being creative can facilitate getting ancestors and objects back. Long-term loans are a possible way, as are a band sharing title to an object with a museum
Vince Collison outlined the process starting nine years ago where letters were sent to museums that potentially had Haida remains and objects, and so far some 250 museums have been contacted. “One of the big challenges we have at the moment is beginning our own inventory based on our criteria, not the museums criteria.” He said there were some unforeseen but positive outcomes, including building relationships between various museums and the Haida.
“Perhaps the most important thing, after each ceremony one can feel that the air has been cleared. The ancestors are at peace,” he said.
Mr. Collison noted that there are still ancestors to be repatriated, seven from the Smithsonian in Washington, two in Oregon, two in England and another four at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
Lucille Bell said that focusing on bringing ancestors home with respect clarifies the process. She talked about keeping the focus on ‘with respect’ which helps determine how to proceed.
“This process has really taught me a lot about patience. We are still getting letters back from nine years ago. It is an ongoing process.”
“(When we started) Â…repatriation was a new thing. We had a lot to learn. We did a lot of praying. We prayed to our ancestors that they understood what we are trying to do. Along the way I learned a lot about traditional practices,” Ms Bell said, adding “it is really a daunting task. I never imagined that I would have to hold the bones of my ancestors. Each trip I go on I get a little bit stronger.”
She also noted that it’s important to be well-organized and communicate well with everyone involved in the process to ensure it goes smoothly.
Andy Wilson said he had developed a rapport with media representatives through his work at the carving shed in Skidegate, and that to be an effective spokesman on repatriation, it is a good idea to stay away from political issues such as land claims, forestry, the fishery and oil and gas. “We are not here to talk about politics. We are not a political body,” he said.
The conference covered a wide variety of associated topics including the legalities of repatriation, how pesticides can affect ceremonial objects, as well as relationships between First Nations and museums. It was the first of a kind, and drew high praise from many participants as it came to a close. “You have inspired something for people right across this land,” one said, while another asked “can I hug a totem pole before I go home”?
Chief Iljuuwaas closed the conference by saying “Let’s keep the fire burning. Let’s let it never go out”.