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A First Nation’s quest to reclaim its masks from the Royal B.C. Museum

Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw hereditary chiefs say they are ready to reclaim their kikasu, or treasure boxes, in anticipation of the opening of their new bighouse in the summer
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From left, chiefs Paddy Walkus, Willie Walkus and David Nolie among Hamatsa masks inside the Royal B.C. Museum’s totem hall. VIA MURRAY BROWNE

Hereditary chiefs and other representatives from a First Nation near Port Hardy have declared their intention to repatriate 17 Hamatsa masks along with other regalia and treasures currently held by the Royal B.C. Museum.

Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw hereditary chiefs said in a statement Friday that they are ready to reclaim their kikasu, or treasure boxes, in anticipation of the opening of their new bighouse in the summer.

A week-long potlatch is planned, where the items will be honoured in dance and ceremony for the first time in more than six decades.

Hereditary Chief Henry Seaweed, an expert on Hamatsa dances and masks, said in a statement that some of the Hamatsa masks in the Royal B.C. Museum were carved by his grandfather, master carver Willie Seaweed.

“Each of these sacred masks has a story, song and dance,” Seaweed said. “Our laws demand that we bring these home to our own bighouse so we can teach our children our ways.”

Seaweed presented the declaration of repatriation to museum staff on Wednesday and then danced a part of the Hamatsa while in the presence of the masks in the museum’s Totem Hall.

Colleen Hemphill, Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw’s chief negotiator, said the celebration when the kikasu is returned will be the largest potlatch the community has ever held. “There’s a revival at this time, a renaissance of our culture and these will be the first major ancient pieces that any of the people here will have seen.”

The repatriation negotiations began in 2018, when the nation had an ethnographer list all the pieces held by the museum, she said, adding that the 17 masks are not the only items from the Gwa’sala and the ‘Nakwaxda’xw’ that are in the museum’s possession.

“There will be at least double that amount hopefully that will be added,” she said, adding that there’s a collection of Willie Seaweed’s crooked-beak masks that the nation has identified as a repatriation priority. “But we wanted to have certainty about a number of them at the very least, prior to the completion of our bighouse.”

Negotiations with the museum have not always been smooth over the years, but the nation is now dealing with staff members who are “extremely co-operative” and “very encouraging,” Hemphill said. “There should be no real issues in repatriating the other pieces that we would like back.”

Hemphill, who can trace her ancestry through her great-grandmother to Johnny Davis — a carver who taught people like Willie Seaweed at the Kwakwa ka’wakw Blunden Harbour School of Art — said she couldn’t believe it when she first saw one of the masks Davis carved at the museum.

“These big beautiful magical pieces … this is how they carved in the mid-1800s. Where did they get the inspiration? How did they come up with these?”

The Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw have a number of Hamatsa masks, but none that predate 1964.

The early 1900s saw a flurry of thefts and unscrupulous purchases by museums and collectors looking to add First Nations artifacts to their collections.

The Royal B.C. Museum’s ethnology collection has more than 14,000 objects, which include a number of Indigenous objects and cultural artifacts dating back to the time of Canada’s potlatch ban from 1885-1951, according to its website.

The Gwa’sala and the ‘Nakwaxda’xw were once separate Kwakwa ka’wakw nations on the central coast near Smiths Inlet and Blunden Harbour. Master carvers from the communities would travel up and down the coast, creating carvings for other nations to use in their potlatches and ceremonies.

The 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People details how the department of Indian Affairs amalgamated and forcibly relocated them to a reserve north of Port Hardy in 1964, ostensibly for improved housing, health and education.

When they arrived in Tsulquate Reserve, only three houses were ready for occupation, but the government had already burned down the two communities they left to prevent them from returning.

Some families resorted to living on their boats without proper anchorage, while others slept 20 or 30 to a house.

The trauma of forced relocation caused after-effects for decades, such as high infant mortality rates, the report said.

But in recent years, the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw have been working toward economic and cultural self-sufficiency, as seen in the 2017 opening of the nation-owned Kwa’lilas Hotel, formerly the Port Hardy Inn, and its ongoing effort to reclaim its child-welfare services.

The Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw bighouse, expected to be complete in early summer, will the first raised by the nations since 1964.

Hemphill said the repatriated items will be stored in the carving shed built during construction of the bighouse until a permanent display is decided upon.

There is a sense of “real relief” from elders and hereditary chiefs that the masks are returning to the community and will be available for use in ceremony and cultural events again, she said. “Even though we don’t have the pieces now, we are feeling very happy with what the future holds.”

Tracey Drake, acting CEO of the Royal B.C. Museum, said in a statement that the museum is honoured to be working with the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw on the return of their belongings.

“We are thankful to be working closely with Chiefs and Elders on finalizing the repatriation list and planning the physical return of the belongings, including any cultural protocols and ceremonies that may be required,” she said in a statement.

“We look forward to continuing to build strong relationships with the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw and other First Nation communities.”

In 2019, B.C. enshrined the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into provincial law, which calls on states to enable the access and repatriation of ceremonial objects and human remains taken from Indigenous peoples in consultation with First Nations.

In February, Nuxalk hereditary chiefs and members of that Central Coast First Nation gathered at the Royal B.C. Museum to witness the repatriation of a totem pole that had been taken from their homelands south of Bella Coola more than a century ago.

Some 30 B.C. First Nations are in varying stages of the repatriation process with the Royal B.C. Museum.

mjlo@timescolonist.com