For more than 100 years, Europeans ripped off the treasures of First Nations in this province. And for just as long, First Nations have demanded they be returned.
From the famous anthropologist Franz Boas, to the B.C. and federal governments, to museums around the world — all have been complicit in the greatest heist this province has ever known.
But this is 2017, and an indigenous resurgence that has marked the past 50 years is reaching new shores, particularly in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action.
In a course in Pacific history that I teach, University of Victoria undergraduate students are hot on the trail of a set of poles that once stood alongside a monument dedicated to George Vancouver in Kihei, Maui.
Only the foundations of the poles exist today — the poles themselves were damaged in a storm and have disappeared, apparently stored somewhere. Students are contacting groups in Hawaii for further assistance.
Finding out where the poles are from, how they ended up in Hawaii and where they are now is an example of participatory-action research that teaches students research methods but also makes them aware of indigenous history and culture.
One group of students carefully transcribed the inscriptions from the decaying foundations, one of which reads: “Totem Pole greeted me at his village 1916. My silent partner on rugged coast till 1946. Ten years at our Vancouver home.” The other includes the name “Gibson.”
Another group researched the story of former B.C. lumberman and MLA Gordon Gibson Sr., who apparently built the monument and brought the poles to Maui, where he built his retirement home and a hotel, the Maui Lu, overlooking Ma’alaea Bay.
How and where Gibson obtained the poles remains unclear, but because the inscription mentions Nootka Sound, it seems likely the poles originated from that area. Subsequent student research on Nuu-chah-Nulth carvings affirm the strong likelihood that the poles are Mowachaht.
No matter what the state of the poles today, they are not artifacts — they are the cultural treasures of a First Nation. Even before embarking on the project, we sought the permission of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation — they agreed, as long as we kept them informed of the results.
The monument also posed another mystery — it is inscribed: “Pierre Elliott Trudeau Prime Minister of Canada Dec. 22, 1969.” Research revealed, however, that Trudeau could not have been there at the time, as he was preparing to meet John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Ottawa.
Students are also researching indigenous perspectives on George Vancouver and the ethics involved in a Canadian erecting a monument in Vancouver’s name in Maui.
Whether Gibson bought or otherwise obtained the missing poles is unclear, but repatriation of such treasures has long been a goal for many First Nations.
This year, Margarita James, president of the Land of Maquinna Cultural Society, visited the class and recounted the Mowachaht-Muchalaht First Nation’s repatriation challenges, including the difficulties in bringing home the sacred Whaler’s Shrine.
Students watched the film The Washing of Tears, which explains how the shrine, originally on a small island in Jewitt Lake at Yuquot (Friendly Cove), was a sacred site dedicated to Nuu-chah-nulth whaling spirits that housed nearly 100 carved treasures, as well as human remains. Boas “purchased” the shrine on behalf of the American Museum of Natural History, had it dismantled and spirited it away to New York, where it has been for over a century. It has never been displayed.
The pillage of First Nations cultural treasures was endemic at the turn of the century, as anthropologists such as Boas and private collectors stole or purchased such treasures at ridiculous prices. By this time, many First Nations were faced with indescribable hardship.
Diseases from Europe had decimated their numbers. The B.C. government forced people onto small reserves, denying them access to the resources that were rightfully theirs.
Aggravating matters was the 1884 federal ban on potlatching that further devalued the treasures.
First Nations defied the ban but it gave the government licence to seize treasures, such as in the infamous incident in 1921, when government agents raided a potlatch organized by Chief Dan Cranmer on ‘Mimkwamlis (Village Island), arresting Cranmer and 44 others. The authorities forced them to surrender their treasures or go to jail. Hundreds of treasures were either sold or sent to Ottawa.
Almost every First Nation has similar stories, and the struggle for repatriation has been long and hard, even after the ban on potlatching was lifted in 1951. Chief Bill Cranmer, one of Chief Dan Cranmer’s sons, helped spearhead repatriation at ‘Yalis (Alert Bay). After decades of searching and fundraising, Umista Cultural Centre came to life, housing some of the many treasures that have been repatriated.
The B.C. government pledged $2 million to support repatriation efforts, but whether this will make much of a dent remains unclear.
“We’re still always having to chase after grants to run Umista. The provincial and federal governments should take more responsibility,” Chief Cranmer recounted in a recent discussion.
Similarly, First Nations on Quadra Island founded the Nuyumbalees Society in 1975 to repatriate their Kwakwak’wakw treasures. Today, the Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre welcomes visitors from around the world at Cape Mudge, but continues to face financial pressures.
Recently, the Huu-ay-aht First Nations (Nuu-chah-nulth) finally regained possession of some of their cultural treasures that had been held by the Royal B.C. Museum for over a hundred years.
Many institutions, including the University of Victoria and the Royal B.C. Museum, face important challenges in overcoming colonialism’s legacy and its continuing impact in a province where First Nations retain title to most of the land.
Later this month, the First Peoples’ Cultural Council and the Royal B.C. Museum will hold a conference in Kelowna on repatriation of cultural treasures. The results will no doubt provide further lesson materials for me and the students in History 111.
John Price teaches history at the University of Victoria. Students in History 111, Age of Encounters in the Pacific World, assisted in the research and editing of this article.