British Columbia

New emotional gallery exhibit highlights return of Haida ancestors and artifacts

The Haida Gwaii Museum has repatriated many historic Haida artifacts and ancestors from all around the world. These cultural treasures are part of a special exhibition now on display.

'Our art is the companion to our Haida language. It is our form of writing'

Many historic Haida belongings, both everyday and artistic, are displayed though 1,500 photographs. The images were sent by or collected from various museums, universities and private owners in North America.  (Jisgang Nika Collison)

With the help of the Haida Nation, the Haida Gwaii Museum has repatriated many historic Haida artifacts and ancestors from all around the world.

These cultural treasures are part of a special exhibition now open in Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off British Columbia's coast.

Many historic Haida belongings, both everyday and artistic, are displayed though 1,500 photographs. The images were sent by or collected from various museums, universities and private owners in North America. 

Jisgang Nika Collison, a Haida executive director and curator at the museum, says the repatriation is very important to the Haida people. It's a way to bring their culture home. 

"Our art is the companion to our Haida language. It is our form of writing," Collison told Carolina de Ryk, host of Daybreak North.

"Those types of repatriations are really complex, a very long process and huge in healing and in strengthening our nation's language art and culture. It's a critical component of that."

The new Haida exhibition at Haida Gwaii Museum is largely made up of photographs of artifacts that live in museums around the world. (Jisgang Nika Collison)

The Haida repatriation committee, with the help of the Council of the Haida Nation, has worked to bring over 500 ancestors home for reburial on Haida Gwaii over the last 30 years. It's been the life work of many people on Haida Gwaii, says Collison.

Collison says the intent of the exhibition is to educate the public on how Haida ancestors and cultural heritage wound up in global museums and other institutions around the world. It also shows how the Haida have built positive relationships with these institutions. 

'As part of the colonial system there was a lot of thieving on Haida Gwaii — taking our cultural treasures in the name of science and the benefit of humanity, as people thought we weren't going to stick around,' says Collison. (Jisgang Nika Collison)

Why the pieces were taken away

The artifacts were taken from Haida Gwaii after the smallpox epidemic in the 1860s and as colonialism grew, according to Collison.

"As part of the colonial system there was a lot of thieving on Haida Gwaii — taking our cultural treasures in the name of science and the benefit of humanity, as people thought we weren't going to stick around."

While many pieces were taken by force, others were sold.

"But I maintain, and many of us do, that the majority of those pieces were sold under duress."

Collison believes this, because many of the pieces were taking during the potlatch ban — where ceremonial distribution of property and gifts in Indigenous communities was prohibited. She says it was a time of extreme social and economic marginalization.

Listen to the full interview here

With files from Daybreak North

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