Skip to main content

University Pledges to Return Haida Remains

  • Author:
  • Updated:

MASSET, British Columbia - On the verge of completing a decade-long project
to recover all their ancestral brethren, the Haida received a pleasant,
though shocking surprise.

A British Columbia university has come forward and revealed it possesses
Haida remains and readily offers their return. In the pursuit of tracking
down several hundred bodies worldwide, the Haida repatriation committee
wasn't even aware Simon Fraser University (SFU), located in a Vancouver
suburb, had these remains in storage.

During a conference May 21 - 22 in Masset on the northern tip of the Queen
Charlotte Islands (also referred to as the Haida Gwaii), SFU's Eldon
Yellowhorn sprung the announcement to an audience of 200 including numerous
First Nations tribes and museum representatives interested in the
repatriation process. Being the bearer of good news, Yellowhorn explained
the university's stance on a practice that's rarely been exercised.

"It's our policy to repatriate when we can if we can identify the remains,"
said Yellowhorn, an assistant professor in the archaeology department,
pointing out there needs to be a letter prepared by the original tribe.

Almost immediately a co-chair of the Haida repatriation committee, Andy
Wilson, made an informal, verbal request. For years his group has
laboriously and painstakingly followed leads in a global search to find
more than 400 bodies, many of whom were taken a century ago during
scientific expeditions when it was believed the Haida were on the verge of

"We didn't know they had these remains so we were caught off guard with his
talk," Wilson said, who noted it wouldn't take long before SFU will be

Yellowhorn stated Simon Fraser never actively obtained human remains.
Rather, his department is a repository for the deceased whereby if they're
discovered, often during new construction projects, and if no criminal
investigation is pending, the bones are placed into the university's care.

"We have a fiduciary responsibility to the living representatives of found
human remains that may not have any living relatives," explained Yellowhorn
about why universities and museums can't be too quick to return bodies.

Regarding these four skeletons, one was found in Masset where the sewers
were being repaired while the three others were discovered in a cave on the
Islands. Twenty years ago SFU received an inquiry letter from the Haida
about these remains but as Yellowhorn stated, the communication ceased.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

"The time wasn't right to repatriate because there was no community support
or infrastructure," he said. "Right now they have the repatriation
committee and funding but there was none of that in the '80s."

Besides, he pointed out, not all tribes have a process for repatriation.
Some, like his own Peigan reservation in southern Alberta, avoid handling
the dead for fear of offending spiritual powers.

"I had to overcome these personal taboos to pursue this profession," said
Yellowhorn, a third-year professor at SFU and one of only three Native
faculty members on campus.

While it's considered repugnant, if not illegal, by archaeologists to
specifically seek out the deceased, there is academic merit when conducting
tests in today's society. Yellowhorn pointed out that from discovered
skeletons, DNA can be lifted and genetic patterns established, vital clues
in establishing links to where previous Native generations lived and it
helps in determining validity in land claim treaties.

As the province continues to grow, Indian remains and ancient burial
grounds are found repeatedly. However, Yellowhorn said, only with the
consent of the affected First Nation will examinations occur and even then,
in the most respectful manner.

"While we use a lot of scientific methods, we're very conscious that we're
grounded in the humanities and the human side of antiquities," Yellowhorn

The largest of all the Haida repatriation excursions was last October to
The Field Museum in Chicago where 160 bodies were prepared for the return
to their B.C. homeland. Before the announcement by SFU, the last known
remains were two bodies at the University of Oregon that are waiting to be
received by the committee.

Wilson, who has built over 500 bentwood boxes that are used in the burial
of the remains, said the quantity of bodies in one location to be
repatriated is irrelevant as they all command the same respect.

"It's not really the numbers and one is just as important as the many we've
done," Wilson said.

Although there is no plan in place, it's likely his committee will travel
to Oregon and SFU during one trip to collect the remains before ultimately
giving them an elaborate and ceremonial funeral, an honor bestowed by the
Haida for their deceased.