It was a breathtaking moment for Mowachaht-Muchalaht First Nation member Margarita James. She was on hand for the return of a Nuu-chah-nulth ceremonial club that was given to the English explorer Captain Cook more than 200 years ago.
After passing through many hands, it finally rested in James’s when the piece was returned on March 20, 2012, to the Nuu-chah-nulth. The piece was a sight to behold and breathtaking to hang on to, said James, who is president of the Land of Maquinna Cultural Society, in a telephone interview with Indian Country Today Media Network.
“I was completely awestruck beyond words when I actually saw it, to actually see something from our nation from that whole era of contact,” she said. The Mowachaht-Muchalaht are one of 15 nations that comprise the Nuu-chah-nulth peoples of the West Coast of Vancouver Island.
Valued at $1.2 million, the club was donated to the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver by Canadian philanthropist Michael Audain at a ceremony on Tuesday, March 20.
“This ceremonial club has immense historical and cultural value. I am delighted to play a part in its return to Canada’s west coast,” Audain said in a statement. “While certain Nuu-chah-nulth objects collected by Cook exist in museums abroad—for example, in London, Berlin, and Vienna—this is the first and only in Canada.”
The 18-inch-long club is carved out of yew wood, shaped like a hand cupping a sphere. It was likely used for killing seals or halibut, said Tseshaht First nation researcher Darrell Ross, who works extensively with artifacts.
“War clubs were usually made of whalebone and were sword-like in shape,” Ross said. “Yew, a resilient wood, was also used for whale harpoons, arrows and fish weirs.”
History says the Mowachaht-Muchalaht gave Cook the club during his final voyage in 1778. It is among the last traditional artifacts created before European contact on Canada's West Coast, and colonization. Cook was killed after returning to Hawaii in 1779.
Cook’s family sold the club to the Leverian Museum in London in 1806. From there it passed through 11 owners in Britain and the United States before being obtained by the foundation.
Audain's foundation has donated more than $20 million in art and historic objects to Canadian galleries and museums, much of it First Nations work. For philanthropists donations are often about a tax break, but James didn't think this to be completely the case with Audain.
The club's cultural value eclipses its monetary one to the Mowachat-Muchalaht people, something not lost on the benefactor, James said. “He said to me, 'I think I've learned something.’ ”
The day of the donation was special, and fell on the vernal equinox to boot, but it will be even more special if the club and other pieces—such as the Friendly Cove whaling shrine, which is on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City—can be brought back to Mowachaht-Muchalaht.
“Our dream is to have our own facility where we can house our artifacts so that our youth can see them firsthand and learn about them,” James said. “We'd be proud to have these things back from where they came from and to share them with the world.”