CHICAGO - After a year of negotiations and cultural exchanges, representatives from a Pacific Northwest tribe were finally able to take the remains of their ancestors home.
Stored in the Field Museum of Chicago for more than 100 years, the bodies and spirits of 160 Haida were honored on Oct. 17 in a ceremony preceding their departure back to British Columbia. Several days before the celebration, 40 members of the Haida's repatriation committee prepared the corpses for return by wrapping the deceased in traditional blankets and placing them into bentwood boxes made from cedar for their final resting place.
A public display of dances and speeches occurred under the shadow of a pair of century-old totem poles in the museum's foyer, objects that were also collected from the Queen Charlotte Islands (known locally as Haida Gwaii) during an early 20th century expedition. With this ever-present reminder, it would have been easy to have dwelled on the previous insensitivities of archaeologists and anthropologists who looted the graves on trips in 1897, 1901 and 1903 for "scientific purposes." Instead Chief of the Haida's Tanu Wolf clan, Cheexial Taaiixou, held the Field Museum in high regard.
"We can't blame the museums of today for the wrongs that have been done in the past," the chief said noting how important the afterlife is for his people. "We can thank them (the museum) for ensuring that our ancestors' remains have been guarded for the last century."
This effort was the first international repatriation conducted by The Field Museum and the largest return of Haida from the United States. While tribes across the country have been notified of collections of bodies by the Chicago institution and other national museums as is mandated by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), foreign Aboriginals, such as the predominantly Canadian Haida, do not fall under the jurisdiction of this federal law signed by Congress in 1990.
Stating how all requests for the return of bodies and artifacts are given the utmost of consideration, museum provost Robert Martin pointed out how international boundaries should be irrelevant in this act of goodwill.
"There's no reason that people should be treated differently whether they live south or north of the border," Martin said about how the Field Museum is committed to establishing positive relations with other cultures. "We will treat equally all requests from all Native Americans, not just those from the U.S."
There was reason to believe the Haida were on their way to extinction a century ago. Before contact, their population consisted of approximately 6,000 on the islands 60 miles west of Prince Rupert but by the early 1900s that number was drastically reduced to about 500, significantly through the infestation of smallpox and other diseases. Scientists therefore reasoned the need to exhume bodies and gather remnants for study should this tribe become extinct.
Now exactly 100 years after the last sponsored expedition, the Haida have re-populated back to between 5-6,000 though only half live on the Queen Charlottes. Serving on the repatriation committee which seeks to have all of the Haida returned to their homeland is Lucille Bell, who's been on the global search for more than 500 of her ancestors for eight years.
Starting with the nearby Royal Museum of British Columbia in Victoria in 1995, Bell tracks down tips from collectors and police agencies towards the whereabouts of Indian remains. To date, she and the committee have prepared more than 200 letters.
"I heard the spirits of my ancestors speaking to me and the great burden of 500 relatives to bring home," Bell confided. "Every repatriation trip is different and our journey is not over."
She pointed out the next museums her group will target where suspected Haida are still held are the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. and two museums in the United Kingdom. Bell professed skepticism about obtaining the bodies from overseas stating how the British "don't give up anything."
Within the Haida's repatriation committee and community, they choreographed a butterfly dance to symbolize the wayward trek of their ancestors. Describing how the spirits traveled a long way but had nowhere to go, elder Ethel Jones quietly explained to the gathering of several hundred guests and general public how this insect was chosen.
"Because of what happened many years back and how they took our loved ones away from the Queen Charlotte Islands, it looked like they were very far away from home," said Jones.
Following ceremonies in the Queen Charlotte Islands in the communities of Old Massett and Skidegate, the 160 Haida remains were re-buried on Oct. 25 and 26.
in Part Two)