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Jack Knox: Arson imperils the cultural heart of Alert Bay

The good news is the heart of the Kwakwaka’wakw is still beating in Alert Bay. The bad news is that they have had to set up an artifact ICU to save the treasures damaged in an arson at the U’mista Cultural Centre.
Photo credit Stephen Bruce Jr./U'mista Cultural Centre An arson fire at Alert Bay

The good news is the heart of the Kwakwaka’wakw is still beating in Alert Bay.

The bad news is that they have had to set up an artifact ICU to save the treasures damaged in an arson at the U’mista Cultural Centre.

The Cormorant Island museum remains open for visitors, but its legendary potlatch gallery will be closed indefinitely.

All 113 pieces on display suffered soot damage after someone lit a flare under the building in the wee hours of July 23. Twenty-two masks, waterlogged when the sprinklers went off, could need months of work to save them from cracking and mould. Curators from the Royal B.C. Museum, the Campbell River museum and University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology have flocked to the scene to help.

“It’s bad, but it could have been 1,000 times worse,” says Sarah Elizabeth Holland, U’mista’s executive director. “We are so grateful the masks didn’t get burned.”

It’s hard to overstate what that loss would have meant, for U’mista is not — and this is said with all respect to other institutions — just another local museum, the potlatch display not just another collection.

“It’s priceless,” says Bill Cranmer, chairman of U’mista’s board.

“It represents all the suffering our old people went through in the potlatch prohibition, the fight they went through to keep our history alive.”

For Cranmer, the story is also personal, going back to December 1921, when his father, Dan Cranmer, chief of the ‘Namgis tribe, hosted a potlatch on Village Island.

Potlatches — long, elaborate ceremonies with feasts, speeches, ritual songs and dances — marked marriages, births, deaths, pole-raisings, the bestowing of names, the passing of a chief’s privileges, and more. History was passed down, social status validated, relations between tribes sorted out. Potlatches were an essential part of native life.

They were also illegal. Ottawa, seeing potlatches as an impediment to assimilation into white society, banned them in 1884.

Dan Cranmer chose isolated Village Island in part because the ‘Namgis — one of the 18 tribes of the Kwakwaka’wakw (or Kwak’wala-speaking) people — were from there, but also because it was way off in the Broughton Archipelago across the strait from Alert Bay. He thought it was far enough from prying eyes.

He was wrong. About 45 of those who took part were arrested. Half got three- or four-month sentences at the Oakalla prison farm in Burnaby, while the rest were freed on the condition that their bands agree to stop potlatching and surrender all their associated paraphernalia — the treasured masks, costumes and other items handed down from generation to generation.

That’s when the real crime happened, aboriginals say. Instead of being held in trust, their artifacts were scattered among museums and private collections around the world.

Many items went east, mostly to the Royal Ontario Museum and what is now the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. The National Museum of the American Indian, now part of the Smithsonian, ended up with 33 pieces bought by private collector George Heye. Other items went even farther afield.

For the Kwakwaka’wakw, ending their ability to hold potlatches was like snapping the thread of history. So they never gave up on the idea of getting the stuff back.

After the anti-potlatch law finally disappeared in 1951, they began lobbying for the return of property, arguing the items never should have been seized, let alone scattered to the wind. Retrieval of the lost treasures was seen as a way to honour those who had kept the culture alive, holding potlatches even when it might mean going to jail. Comparisons were drawn to early Christians who risked persecution when gathering to worship.

Gradually, beginning in the 1970s, the persistence paid off. The pieces held in Ottawa were the first to come back to the West Coast. The Royal Ontario Museum followed suit in 1988, the National Museum of the American Indian six years later. The returned artifacts went to U’mista and Quadra Island’s Kwakiutl Museum.

It was considered a major coup in 2005 when the British Museum returned a 19th-century transformation mask — one that opens up to change from one figure to another, just like a Transformer toy — on long-term loan. The London institution is famous for its reluctance to release bits of its collection. (There’s a funny story about the late Andrea Sanborn, one of the driving forces behind U’mista, marching into a meeting at the British Museum with an empty Adidas bag in hand. “I’ve come for the mask,” she deadpanned.)

The biggest surprise came in 2003, when a yaxwiwe, or headdress, came all the way from Paris, having been discovered in the apartment of the late French surrealist Andre Breton. The rest of his massive collection — 4,100 pieces including paintings by Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte, and books signed by Sigmund Freud — sold for $70 million.

But after learning of the headdress’s roots, of how it had been surrendered under duress, shipped to the Museum of the American Indian and then passed to her father, Breton’s daughter Aube Breton-Elleouet decided it should not be auctioned off with the rest of the art. Instead, the chic Parisienne found herself being feted in the Big House at Alert Bay, cedar smoke rising around her as she returned the yaxwiwe to the Kwakwaka’wakw.

“It was very important to my father,” she said that day. “It was always on his desk, facing his chair. He had great admiration for American and Canadian Indians, the Indians of Colombie Britannique.”

To think it all came so close to being lost after so much work.