Actions and Commitments

Call to Action # 67: Museums and Archives (67-70)

Royal BC Museum receives declaration to repatriate sacred treasures to BC First Nations

December 19, 2023

Representatives of Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Nations presented a repatriation declaration to reclaim their ancestors

Royal BC Museum receives declaration to repatriate sacred treasures to BC First Nations

Chief Pangwidi (Walter George) surveys masks from his family. Photo: Courtesy of Murray Browne

NationTalk: Capital Daily – Hereditary chiefs and other representatives from Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Nation gathered in the totem hall of the Royal BC Museum on Dec. 6 to make a declaration for the return of sacred treasures to their community. 

The Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Persons Act, passed in 2019 and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought a reckoning to institutions like the RBCM, where negotiations like these are no longer an appeal to an institutional ethic or morality, but rather a demand they recognize Indigenous rights and laws. 

“Repatriating the sacred treasures has been top of the list of our treaty negotiations since we started the process 15 years ago,” said Colleen Hemphill, Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw treaty negotiator. 

The declaration marks an important milestone in reclaiming their history, culture and identity. It’s another milestone for the museum as well, as they continue to redefine their repatriation practices in partnership with Indigenous communities, and also with guidance from Indigenous curators and staff who bring their expertise and perspective to those processes.

“We were one of the first institutions to really start [repatriating], particularly here in Canada,” said Elizabeth Peterson, director of Indigenous collections and repatriation. “It’s something that we’ve been doing for a long time. Each repatriation process is slightly different.”

Hemphill was pleased that the process also included care and input from Indigenous staff “on the inside.” Originally from Kinaso Sipi Cree Nation (Norway House) and an archaeologist by training, the curator of RBCM’s Indigenous collections, Kevin Brownlee, said, “This is great to see that there’s this reflection that we are on both sides of it and able to help communities. And it also sort of helps with the establishing of trust which I think is so critical in any of these negotiations.”

“The Indigenous collections repatriation department really integrates Indigenous collections and archaeology very seamlessly in, how I’ve seen it right from when I started, in such a beautiful way.” 

According to Hemphill, the process to repatriate her community’s treasures began 15 years ago. RBCM is not the only museum that holds materials from her community. The Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa and the UBC Museum of Anthropology also hold many of them in their collections. “It all speaks to the magnificence of [the treasures] and the importance of them.” 

The Royal BC Museum’s ethnology collection holds more than 14,000 objects from around the province. They include ceremonial regalia and other beaded, carved, quilled and printed masterworks that date from the early 19th century to the present. They also include everyday, or utilitarian objects such as bowls and tools. It is one of the most comprehensive collections of First Nations materials in BC.

Many of its acquisitions of materials originating in BC First Nations communities occurred during the province’s potlatch ban from 1851 to 1966. If they were caught participating, even in secret potlatch ceremonies, Indigenous people in BC could be imprisoned for up to two months. Some of the RBCM’s most significant holdings include examples of basketry from Salish and Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations and Haida masks and regalia, some of which were outlawed during that ban.

“These are the few last remaining ancestral masks.” said Murray Browne, legal council for the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Nations. Some of the masks he references were made by Hilimas (Head Chief) Willie Seaweed, a master carver, whose pieces were much sought after up and down the coast around Blunden Harbour where Chief Seaweed was born in 1873.

The Royal BC Museum and other major museums in Canada, like the Museum of History, Glenbow Museum and the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology have significant holdings of First Nations cultural materials. The RBCM “basement,” according to  Browne, “is full of our ancestral belongings.”

The question of the ongoing storage and lack of exhibition opportunities came sharply into focus when it was decided last year that the proposed $789M price tag then-Premier John Horgan proposed to renovate was far too high and BC First Nations began to consider other options for their belongings.

In response to the failure to secure funding for its overhaul, the museum is preparing to move its collections and research department to a new 15,200 square-metre building in Royal Bay in Colwood with an anticipated opening in 2026. Once it is open, people will again be able to view materials and watch researchers at work through accessible lab areas. 

Until then, repatriation negotiations between Indigenous nations and the museum will continue. In this case, Elizabeth Peterson was more than pleased with the outcome.

“The hereditary chiefs came and did a wonderful visit. They honoured us by sharing their cultural practices and honour just by thanking us for this process.”

Sidney Coles, Local Journalism Initiative