SpruceRoots Magazine - July 2004

Haida frog mask in the Field Museum at Chicago.
Photo by Colin Richardson.

Two Sides of the Blade

Experiencing the repatriation of Haida ancestors.

By Sandra Price

On a morning last October visitors to the Field Museum in Chicago gathered inside the front door. My daughter, who lives in Chicago, and I were among them. We were there for the “Performance by Haida Dancers” listed on the day’s schedule.

Special museum events are held in its main hall, a cavernous, echoing space surrounded on all sides by two lower floors of galleries and three upper floors of storage, work areas, and staff offices. The hall itself is about the size of seven basketball courts laid side by side and soars to a sky-lit roof.

Its huge scale dwarfs the five sole objects on display in it: a 42-foot Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, two fighting African bull elephants, and two Haida totem poles.

A Haina pole carved with a Raven, Sea Grizzly, and two Watchmen had been given to the museum in 1902. the other, with an Eagle and three Bears, had been specifically commissioned for the 1893 Columbian Exhibition — the names of the carvers were not recorded. The totem poles rise to the fourth floor, but they are hemmed in by walls, roof and floor, and the air surrounding them has no ravens or eagles flying through it. Without the context of a living cedar forest, the magnificence of the poles seemed diminished.

Museum visitors soon filled the 200 chairs arranged in a large semi-circle in the center of the hall. The Field Museum president, John McCarter, gave the introduction.

“Today we are gathered to witness a very special event. Representatives from the Haida Nation, the Canadian government, and the Field Museum are here to commemorate the repatriation of ancestral remains to the Haida of Old Massett and Skidegate.

“About a century ago, anthropologists and collectors took artifacts and remains of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest to various museums around the country. At the time, they thought they were doing the right thing, collecting relics and evidence of a culture that appeared to be dying out. Instead the Haida survived —and are thriving today. Now we are voluntarily returning those remains to the Haida Nation because we feel it is the right thing to do.

“The Field Museum has worked very closely with the Haida to make this event possible and we’ve been delighted to have the Haida as our guests for the past week. We are committed to building positive relationships with diverse communities, at home and around the world.”

Haida drums on either side of the hall then called loudly back and forth as a fearsome Gagit danced and cried out to clear the air. Skidegate and Old Massett Chiefs and Elders entered, followed by singers and dancers. All were dressed in Haida regalia; red, black, royal blue, and jade green button blankets appliquéd with raven, eagle, dogfish, and butterfly crests; Chilkat blankets; and cedar bark hats.

Andy Wilson, who shared MC duties with Nika Collison and Irene Mills, first thanked the native peoples on whose land they were standing.

“This sad, happy, and proud day,” he went on, “we are taking our ancestors home.”

The Haida delegation had spent the week respectfully wrapping the bones of their ancestors, bones that had lain in metal storage drawers for the better part of a century. Now they would be taken home for reburial on Haida Gwaii. Their work done, the Haida could tell other about it.

Chiefs and elders each spoke, elaborating on the remarks of it being a sad day because the ancestors had been taken, but also a happy day because they would be back to Haida Gwaii where their spirits would be at home. Some speakers told of the work that had been done, others of the three years of preparation that led to it.

“We are righting a wrong,” Roy Jones, Jr. said, “we can’t blame the museums, but we can thank them for guarding our ancestors’ remains.”

The meaning of each dance was given by an MC before it was performed: the Chief’s Spirit dance with eagle down, Raven and Eagle dances, a Women’s dance and a Men’s dance with audience members from age 9 to 79, it seemed, enthusiastically taking part. Anishinabee, Tlinglit, Tsimshian, Coast Salish, Ojibway, Potawatomi, and Chikahominy dancers, some in full regalia, joined the clan dance.

Ethel Jones and Mary Swanson introduced a new dance. Ethel explained how Margaret Hewer had chosen the Butterfly as the repatriation symbol, to represent the wandering spirit which had nowhere to go.

“But today they’re going home,” Mary said. “Thank you, Field Museum, for all the support you gave us.”

The Butterfly dance was performed by two women wearing white button blankets with black butterfly crests. When the dancers used their fingertips to ruffle the edges of the blanket, the wings of the butterfly literally fluttered.

The museum had arranged for three Haida masks from their collection to be used in the morning ceremony.
“Today you will see our pieces,” Nika said, “that are held in the museum. Everything that was made had use and meaning. Today we put use and meaning back in a mask not meant just to be looked at.”

These Dogfish, Raven and Frog masks had not been danced in over 100 years. Two masks were so large the dancer needed both hands to support it. For the Frog dance a new prayer song was composed: “Where have all my treasures gone?”

The dances themselves were regal and sedate. The slow movements of the dancers called to mind the age of the masks and the age of the ancestor who wore it, perhaps one whose remains were being returned to the Islands.

When the old mask first appeared, I had anticipated a collective holding of breath by the curatorial staff charged with safekeeping. But their facial expressions showed nothing but awe. It seemed to me at that moment that the museum had been trustworthy stewards of the physical materials in their care: the human remains and the ceremonial objects. In their turn the Haida had shown themselves to be stewards of the intangibles: the language, the song, the prayer, the art — even though this had not been expected by museum collectors a century ago. The event we were witnessing seemed to celebrate that both parties had kept their word, honoring an unspoken agreement to one another.

Thank-you gifts were presented to those who had helped in the efforts leading to the week’s success. Among them were an anonymous donation of shipping containers, Air Canada for transportation, Petco for cedar chips packing material, the museum staff for securing the donations, the Canadian Consulate for hospitality, and six(!) catering firms.

Those in attendance were also paid for witnessing the event. Their gifts included dried k’aaw, salmon, and seaweed; chocolates wrapped in Native design wrappers; and a print by Walker Brown. This new work by a young artist skilled in the arts was a clear indication that the Haida are thriving, as John McCarter had said in the morning’s introduction.

The final gift was a moving two-page, statement by Jenny Cross. In her Thoughts on Repatriation and the Process she wrote, in part, that “…all the excuses in the world will never repair the damage/grief that was done to the ancestors’ remains by this senseless act of disregard (retrieving the remains of our ancestors from their resting places in order to study and analyze aboriginal people) by those who [thought] aboriginal people would soon be extinct. [They] weren’t aware of the impact that this would cause aboriginal people so many years later… Whatever a reason, it doesn’t really matter, because what’s done is done and it is up to us, the future generation to correct this wrong… We, the aboriginal people are trying to correct this, by traveling to the many museums of the world that have been holding our ancestral remains in metal drawers… Traveling at our own expense, to repatriate ancestors and bring them home and ensure they are reburied with the highest honor of respect… ‘We are who we are because of them.’”

Christian White then spoke in Haida, which he translated into English. He told the Haida story about the world being sharp like a knife. “You need to walk carefully,” he said, “or you will fall off.”

The repatriation ceremony itself felt to me like walking on the edge of a knife. The past and the present were always implied, two sides of the blade — especially in the speeches by the elders and the dancing of the old masks and new masks together. Other dualities that morning offered a narrow border between them: Haida and non-Haida, the physical and the spiritual, oral knowledge and written, the bureaucratic and the traditional. Never did they blend into one another for a single view. Instead, it seemed to be up to us to walk carefully on the edge between them, acknowledging both.

Just before the exit song, Colin Richardson asked to speak.
“We have came a long ways for our ancestors,” he said. “Body parts were taken from our homelands. We hope in the future that museums will be more sensitive. In 1860 there were only 500 of us; today there are 6,000. We own our homeland. Presently Canada occupies our homeland. It is time for Canada to come to the table to talk in a respectful manner. It is good what John McCarter, the chief of the Field Museum has done. It is time to show the world a new direction.

“We have our ancestors,” he said. “And we’ll be back to take the rest of our Haida stuff that was stolen.”

Amos Setso then took the microphone, but silence between his remarks conveyed as much meaning as did his words.

“This is a great day,” he said. “It has been a long process to get our remains back to Haida Gwaii. It is sad to see many other nations which have ancestors in drawers. We offered prayers to those nations. Our hearts are open.

“It is so hard to express our feelings. Singing and dancing is one way.” Then pointing to the totem poles in the hall, he said, “Our totem poles express our relationship to the land.”

He was quiet. It was a focused silence, not an uncomfortable one. I felt everyone on the hall joining in his search for the right words, as if seeking inspiration ion the spirit of the ancestors whose remains has lain in the museum.

“Thank you, Field Museum,” he said at last, “for taking care of our ancestors all these years.”

I felt a sudden opening, a release, as if for eons my body had been clenched shut by rusted armor. Now Amos’ words had suddenly sprung open the armor. Anything was possible.

I cannot know what was in Amos’ heart, but to me it felt like forgiveness. •