Imagine doing a jigsaw puzzle where you can’t find the last few pieces.
They could be anywhere: under the coffee table, down the couch, in the British Museum, on a desk in Paris. …
This has been the lot of the Kwakwaka’wakw, the aboriginal people of northeastern Vancouver Island. They have spent at least four decades trying to recover their past, hunting down hundreds of culturally significant artifacts scattered around the world. It doesn’t help that some of these pieces have been missing for more than a century.
So, when somebody stumbles upon a piece like the Chilkat blanket, it’s hard to know whether to credit blind luck or providence.
“It was a shot in the dark,” says Sarah Holland, the executive director of the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, where the blanket just went on display.
The blanket was one of 13 made by a Tlingit noblewoman named Anisalaga, a historically significant figure who, among other things, introduced Chilkat weaving to the Kwakwaka’wakw (I’m tempted to say it’s pronounced just like it’s spelled, but go with kwak-wak-ya-wak) in the 19th century. The blanket, which would have taken up to a year to weave in the 1880s, disappeared following the death of the daughter for whom Anisalaga made it. “The family didn’t know where it was for 100 years,” Holland says.
Just before Christmas, a curator at the Canadian Museum of History spotted the blanket on a list of items up for auction at Christie’s in Paris the next day. She called Donna Cranmer, a weaver and descendant of Anisalaga in Alert Bay. Cranmer snagged Holland. Not having the money to buy the blanket, they had to hold their breath waiting to see if it would go at auction. It didn’t.
Holland urged Ottawa to rush through funding before it sold somewhere else. “It was a nail-biter.” Heritage Canada, convinced that the blanket was of national historical significance, reduced its 13-week application process to three weeks (over the holidays, no less) and came up with $27,000. Donors pitched in $9,000.
There were other bidders, but the vendors, a Miami couple who had bought the blanket in the 1990s (“They said it smelled like a barnyard when they first got it,” Holland says) liked the idea of sending it home.
And that was that, with the blanket going on display at U’mista, the fabulous little museum in Alert Bay, in March.
But what if the curator hadn’t spotted it on the Christie’s list? What if a private buyer had bought it that day?
This is not the first time a Kwakwaka’wakw treasure was found, almost by happenstance, at a French auction.
In 2003, a headdress known as a yaxwiwe’ was discovered in the Paris apartment of the late André Breton.
Breton, as leader of the Surrealist movement (it emphasizes the irrational and the automatic over logic and reason), was a cultural icon in France. Many there viewed his apartment and its massive collection — 4,100 pieces including paintings by Salvador Dali and René Magritte, photos by Man Ray and books signed by Sigmund Freud — as something of a national shrine, and were upset when the government declined to preserve it. When the collection was broken up and sold, fetching $70 million, protesters threw stink bombs outside the auction.
One item that did not sell was the yaxwiwe’, featuring a raven carved out of wood sitting above a hawk-like figure. It was one of hundreds of items surrendered by the Kwakwaka’wakw in the early 1920s after a raid on a potlatch (the ceremonies were illegal then) hosted by Donna Cranmer’s grandfather Dan. The aboriginals were given a Sophie’s choice: either give up your masks, whistles and other potlatch paraphernalia, or stay in jail.
The items were supposed to be held in trust, but were scattered through museums and private collections around the world. The yaxwiwe’ ended up in the National Museum of the American Indian (now part of the Smithsonian), then made its way to Breton not long before his death in 1966.
In 2003, French anthropologist Marie Mauzé, asked to examine the headdress for possible purchase by the Louvre, recognized it as Kwakwaka’wakw, then discovered it was one of the missing potlatch pieces. She told Breton’s daughter, Aube Breton-Elléouët, who decided it should not be auctioned off with the rest of the art.
Instead, the chic Parisienne returned it to Alert Bay, where she appeared both thrilled and bewildered when asked to join in a dance in the Big House at Alert Bay, cedar smoke swirling around her.
Hundreds of surrendered potlatch items have been reclaimed and are on display at U’mista and another museum on Quadra Island.
The Kwakwaka’wakw know of the whereabouts of a handful of others they would like to get. A few others are just missing, pieces of the puzzle waiting to be found — by the right people — 100 years and 10,000 kilometres away.