by Marty Logan
The bones have been stored in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) since a museums collector looted graves in villages on Haida Gwaii (officially called the Queen Charlotte Islands) at the beginning of the last century.
Seven years ago, the Haida, who number about 4,000 on the group of islands 100 kilometers west of the province of British Columbia, began sending letters to museums worldwide to trace their stolen ancestors.
In 2000, they began negotiating with the AMNH to repatriate the remains, and started to collect $30,000 for the project, while they began to prepare their communities.
"We had to learn the appropriate songs and dances so it was a lot of work," says Andy Wilson, breathing hard after the ceremony in the rotunda of the National Museum of the American Indian.
Children from Haida Gwaii -- sometimes called the "Canadian Galapagos" for its unique flora and fauna -- learned how to make cedar blankets in which the remains will be wrapped, and high-school students were taught to build the cedar boxes that will hold the bones for burial.
Elders provided "guidance and their wisdom and knowledge to do these things in a proper and respectful manner," adds Wilson, wearing a headband with a butterfly motif, which became the Haida symbol for the "lost souls" of the hundreds of ancestors stolen from their resting places.
The group has repatriated remains of more than 150 Haida from Canadian museums and private collectors. This is the first from outside of Canada, but the natives are already arranging to bring home 140 remains from other U.S. and British museums.
"It's a huge event but you have to wrap your mind around it and say 'it's the right thing to do,'" says Wilson, one of two dozen members of the Haida nation who travelled to New York.
The effort shows an evolution in Haida thinking, says Gina Mae Schubert, a Haida studying in New York on a scholarship provided by the group. "They're more able to say 'Hey, we can go out there and do this. We don't have to wait for someone to do it for us.'"
Schubert also believes repatriation will settle the spirits of Haida ancestors, which were stolen along with the bones.
Haida have lived on the islands -- renowned for their haunting totem or mortuary poles carved with images of animals and spirits from the surrounding rainforest and ocean -- for at least 9,000 years, according to archaeological evidence.
Their population may have reached 30,000 at one point, but after contact with white explorers it plummeted, largely because of smallpox epidemics. The 1915 census counted 588 Haida.
"There were a lot of things that happened to our community," says Wilson. "Smallpox wiped out 95 percent of our people. Repatriation is symbolic of us getting back our culture and our heritage." "Now we're saying 'our numbers are back up. We're getting strong again. It's time to heal ourselves,'" he adds.
The Haida resurgence is evident in other fields too. The group recently won a court case against U.S. forestry giant Weyerhaeuser that forced the firm to cut its logging on Haida Gwaii, 50 percent of which has been designated as protected land.
They made the move after the BC government announced it planned to lift a moratorium on oil and gas exploration off the coast.
The Haida are also cautiously venturing into eco-tourism. At the best-known sites of ancient villages, "watchmen" guard over the area, playing the role once symbolically carried out by the mortuary poles.
Wilson says the museums the Haida contacted have all cooperated with them, especially when the media were informed of the repatriation plans.
AMNH senior vice president Craig Morris said the museum investigated the Haida request for two years before agreeing to repatriation. "In this case we felt they had a very strong argument of a close relationship with the material," he said.
December 3 2002 (http://albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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