Repatriation committee members return from Chicago

  • Mar. 10, 2003 11:00 a.m.

By Heidi Bevington–Four members of the Old Massett and Skidegate repatriation committees travelled to Chicago Feb. 28-March 5.
Andy Wilson, a Skidegate member who made the trip, says he found the staff at Chicago’s Field Museum eager to help make the repatriation of 132 Haida ancestral remains and burial artifacts happen in October.
The committee members went to Chicago to create an inventory of all the Haida remains and artifacts at the museum. Each skeleton has its own case, and the first job for the committee was to check in each case to see what it contained.
Then they spent some time figuring out what burial artifacts the museum had. Masks, dance regalia and musical instruments will be recovered and used in the dance performance during the final thank you ceremony at the end of the recovery process.
Now that the inventory has been created, the committees can begin the process of creating bent wood boxes for the ancestors. Some skeletons are complete and some are partial. The committee uses this information to decide what size bent wood box to make for each ancestor. Some will be laid to rest in an individual box. Other ancestors were originally buried as a couple or as a family, and will require one larger box for reburial.
The committee members use museum records to figure out which village each ancestor came from to decide if they should be reburied in Old Massett or Skidegate. Finally they assess the approximate age of each skeleton in order to prepare emotionally for the process of transferring the bones into their traveling cases for shipment back to the islands. In this case, says Mr. Wilson, many children will be recovered, and this is especially draining emotionally for the people who wrap and transfer the bodies.
For this repatriation, Mr. Wilson estimates Skidegate will need approximately 82 boxes and Massett approximately 48 boxes. Volunteers will make the bentwood boxes and paint them with the assistance of high school students enrolled in the Haida studies class. Each bentwood box takes about a day to make and a week to paint. Normally, a bentwood box created for burial would be painted with the person’s family crest. However, there is no way to know the crest of the individuals being reburied, so the boxes will be painted with crests representing all the families of the villages from which the skeletons were originally taken. Button blankets to wrap each ancestor will be created by the elementary school students enrolled in Haida studies.
As well as creating the bentwood boxes and button blankets, each committee will be busy for the next few months fundraising and coordinating the trip. Food, hotels and transportation need to be organized. Arrangements must be made with customs for a smooth transfer over the border. And details of the final thank you ceremony at the museum must be worked out which means coordinating with museum staff, communications people and the media, says Mr. Wilson.
In October, 24 to 30 people will travel to Chicago to complete the transfer. To begin, the ancestors will be individually wrapped in cloth and packed into a secure crate for their flight back to the islands. In Skidegate and Old Massett the ancestors will be ceremonially transferred to button blankets and then laid in their bent wood boxes. Public services will be held for the ancestors’ burial in the villages’ cemeteries. Then feasts will be held to celebrate.
The repatriation process is really tiring, says Mr. Wilson, because there is so much work involved. The committees have to do a lot of fundraising and organizing. They are volunteers and the committees are always busy because the process takes a lot of time and money.
Although a few other ancestors need to be recovered from other museums, this will be the last big repatriation for the islands. Mr. Wilson says the process began around 1995 when the Haida discovered how many of their ancestors had been taken to museums by collectors who took things from deserted villages after the smallpox epidemic.
So far the repatriation committees have chiefly focused on ancestral remains and associated burial materials. All the museums have cooperated except the British museum, says Mr. Wilson. It remains to be seen if the museums will be equally cooperative with other types of artifacts. The committee does intend to repatriate other types of artifacts after the repatriation of ancestors is complete.