Grave Injustice

The Haida Nation’s quest to repatriate the stolen bodies of its ancestors

Photograph courtesy of National Museums Liverpool
Removed: A totem pole from Xaayna, BC, held by a Liverpool museum since 1901.

In 1924, the Pitt Rivers Museum, at the University of Oxford in England, acquired part of a man’s femur. The bone had made its way from the far northwest of British Columbia with a missionary, Reverend Charles Harrison, who had spent his career on Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands). It was assumed that the remains were from the north coast of Graham Island, but it is not known how they came into Harrison’s possession. In fact, there is much we don’t know about the man to whom the femur belonged: whether he was a chief, a religious leader, a carver, or a dancer; if he was buried below ground or placed in one of the sky-high mortuary boxes used throughout the Pacific Northwest; or if he had been buried at all. In the mid-1800s, smallpox had nearly killed off the population of Haida Gwaii; in some communities, there were not enough survivors to bury the dead.

It was common practice for those working in the colonial trade to take remains and artifacts home with them, for their personal collections, or to sell or bequeath to museums. In Harrison’s case, he wanted to carry home the remains of someone whose people he believed were on the brink of extinction. It is almost impossible to know the full scope of the thefts, but Coll Thrush, an associate professor of history at the University of British Columbia, says grave and artifact looting was a given. “There are bones scattered around the world that were once buried,” he explains.

Over the past few decades, Indigenous people and others whose cultural treasures were taken during the European colonial period have begun agitating for their return. The questions surrounding the ownership of these items are thorny. Human remains are a particularly touchy subject, but the provenance of other pieces, such as religious items, artworks, and ceremonial objects, also raise concerns. One noted example is the Elgin Marbles, a set of sculptures removed from Greece more than 200 years ago and now housed at the British Museum in London. Before the 2012 Summer Olympics, a minor media storm arose around the continued British possession of the objects, prompting comedian and cultural critic Stephen Fry to write an essay on his blog proclaiming, “It’s time we lost our marbles” (the sculptures have stayed in the institution’s Duveen Gallery).

British Columbia’s Haida Nation has been on a mission to repatriate the bodies of its dead since the 1990s. While many of its antiquities and artworks are also held in museums, the Haida’s focus on human remains stems from a deep uneasiness about the fate of their ancestors. They believe a person’s soul cannot continue on to the afterlife if the body is disturbed. That the Haida people have been so successful at reclaiming and reburying these remains is all the more impressive considering that they have done so without using legal force. Rather, they have managed to bring their ancestors home by relying on careful cultivation of relationships and negotiations with cultural institutions.

The task force on Museums and First Peoples, made up of members from the Canadian Museums Association and the Assembly of First Nations, was formed in response to a controversy at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. The city’s Glenbow Museum hosted an exhibit called The Spirit Sings, which featured Aboriginal masks on loan from other institutions. Among them was a False Face Mask from Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, allegedly sold and displayed against Mohawk wishes. Three Mohawk nations sued the Glenbow-Alberta Institute to return the mask and other items. The affair led to a conference between the CMA and the AFN; new procedures for the return of remains and artifacts; and an articulation of the need for increased involvement by First Nations in interpretive materials and access to museum collections.

At the time of the task force, Lucy Bell, a citizen of the Haida Nation, was in her twenties, interning at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria after completing an anthropology degree. The Royal BC had human remains in its backrooms that had been unearthed during archaeological digs in Haida Gwaii. It also possessed thousands of cultural treasures taken before the potlatch ban ended in 1951. (In 1884, the Canadian government banned potlatches and other traditional ceremonies, as part of an effort toward “civilizing” Aboriginal groups. Communities caught hosting potlatches, which facilitated transfers of property ownership, among other important interactions, often experienced raids by authorities during which cultural objects were confiscated.)

After her internship, Bell returned to Haida Gwaii and opened up a café in Old Massett, but found it difficult to leave the Haida collection behind. In 1996, she called a meeting at the local community centre to see if anyone was interested in repatriating the artifacts. Vince Collison, then the cultural coordinator with the Old Massett Village Council, was in attendance. He and Bell eventually became a driving force behind the Haida Repatriation Committee, which has separate branches in the island’s largest communities, Skidegate in the south and Old Massett in the north.

Committee members, including Haida Gwaii Museum staff, typed, mailed, and faxed hundreds of letters (it was the pre-Internet era) to institutions across North America, requesting details of Haida collections. Sometimes they would receive stacks of archives listing relics. Sometimes, to their surprise, anonymous sources sent human remains in the mail; and the Field Museum in Chicago returned 160 ancestors to the Haida Nation. To date, the committee has brought home more than 460 ancestors from museums and private collections.

Bones have an inherent scientific value, and they provide anthropologists with crucial information. “But it was often blurry who counted as an anthropologist or archaeologist,” Thrush says. “Often they were little more than thieves.” One Chippewa commentator referred to rogue collectors as “bone robber barons”; there was a market for the remains, at cultural institutions and in private homes. Not until the late twentieth century, when Aboriginal people became more vocal about repatriation, did collectors, curators, and academics begin to question the ethics of digging up graves.

That doesn’t mean that the days of dubious collecting are over. There is still a significant illegal trade in ill-gotten artifacts. Last November, in California’s Eastern Sierra, petroglyph images carved on the sides of desert chalk bluffs were literally shaved off the rock face. In the early 1990s, more than 800 items were looted from the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul; they were returned only last July.

Today most institutions follow the guidelines put forth by UNESCO in 1970, which provide a unified set of expectations for museums and sellers when dealing with relics, which requires them to investigate an item’s provenance before acquisition, to ensure that it was not stolen. But for antiquities and remains taken hundreds of years ago, questions of ownership become more complicated.

The Haida committee achieved its first successes in Canada, at the Royal BC, where Bell had interned, and eventually at the Canadian Museum of Civilization (soon to be renamed the Canadian Museum of History), in Gatineau, Quebec. The latter relinquished 148 ancestors, a third of whom were disinterred in the 1960s by George MacDonald, a former director of the museum. He had worked with the community to unearth the bodies, which he took back with him for study.

In keeping with Haida cultural values, their repatriation process emphasizes negotiation over litigation. For the committee, this has meant embarking on many years of meetings and discussions. Haida delegations visited representatives of the Pitt Rivers Museum five times over a twelve-year period. They visited Chicago’s Field Museum, and travelled to the British Museum to raise a totem pole in the appropriate manner. At almost all of the institutions they contact, they hold potlatch-like ceremonies.

In the United States, however, litigation reigns. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 requires museums to inventory their collections of remains and sacred or funerary objects, and to notify descendants, be they family members or communities. NAGPRA has been used more than 38,000 times to reclaim human remains.

Vince Collison took two courses on the legislation and says it is a “labyrinth,” complicated and daunting to navigate, which means many communities are unprepared for the long, convoluted process involved. Still, the Haida committee has successfully recovered remains from museums in the US. While they might have asked their American counterparts to use NAGPRA to bring ancestors home (the Haida population stretches into southern Alaska), they have not done so. Nor do they plan to, wishing to continue having remains returned voluntarily.

Even as repatriation becomes more common in North America, many European institutions remain apprehensive about the process, to some extent because there is a sense of pride and national identity tied up in housing these collections. “The English got to know who they were, and developed as a distinct nation, by interacting with people during the process of colonialism,” says Laura Peers, curator of the Americas Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum. “And when they brought things back from those encounters, it helped to define the English.” Returning artifacts and remains can seem like relinquishing their own history. Museums also worry that handing over one item might lead to a floodgate scenario, wherein a precedent is established that might require the return of everything else.

The committee initially approached the Pitt Rivers in the late 1990s, and Collison says the museum seemed wary at first. Before going to Europe as a Canadian cultural ambassador for the 1998 Lisbon World Exposition, Bell asked around to learn which institutions in the UK and elsewhere in Europe most likely held ancestral remains. She was pointed toward the Pitt Rivers, which had already received the letter requesting details of its collection. Among its holdings was the partial femur taken from Haida Gwaii nearly a century ago by the missionary Charles Harrison. At first, staff members were uncooperative and asked the committee to remove repatriation from its agenda before the meeting. “We went in with fingers crossed behind our backs, and took repatriation off the table,” says Bell. The Haida delegation did not raise the issue then, but it was still at the top of their minds.

Committee members did not return to England until 2007, when they went to the British Museum to help raise a totem pole in the courtyard. They made a side trip to meet with Laura Peers, who had taken over as curator of the museum’s Americas collections. She and a doctoral student, Cara Krmpotich, are both Canadian, and had done research in Haida Gwaii in 2005. “Maybe we need to put Canadians in all European museums,” says Bell. Repatriation was now open to discussion at the Pitt Rivers, in part due to new British legislation regarding holdings of human remains, as well as a more progressive Canadian understanding of colonization and the weight of cultural theft on Aboriginal identity.

A school of thought in the museum industry known as “universalism”—the idea that culture belongs to everyone, no matter where it originated or resides physically—exacerbates the reluctance of many institutions abroad to co-operate in repatriations. But how can an artifact or a body from Haida Gwaii, stolen from its home and often presented without context in a British museum, be considered a piece of British history?

Jason Alsop, CEO of the Haida Heritage Centre in Skidegate, acknowledges that this was his position when he first joined the committee. But when he visited the Pitt Rivers in 2009, he watched a curator from the National Museums Liverpool group present slides of its Haida collection, which includes a totem pole from the ancient village of Xaayna, on the northeastern shore of Maude Island. The Xaayna pole arrived in Liverpool in 1901 at the behest of collector and naturalist Charles Newcombe. He had acquired it from J. Wesley, whose parents held high rank in Xaayna and had commissioned it to erect in front of their house, likely in the 1860s. When a blitz of bombs rained over Liverpool on May 3,1941, the museum was gutted, but the pole remained standing amid the rubble—and still has shrapnel lodged in its back today. When the museum did renovations in 2005, the local media quoted a staff member who said the pole’s new, prominent role in the World Museum atrium was “like a dear old friend coming back.”

“It was powerful to see the different value associated with things, whatever their location and time,” explains Alsop. “That pole stood in Xaayna and had its own life, and then made it to Liverpool and survived that. If you think of them as living entities, that they experience or see what is going on around them, then that’s an interesting pole.”

The curator from Liverpool spoke as part of a conference Peers organized when a large Haida delegation from BC visited in September 2009. During the encounter, members felt confident enough in their relationship with the Pitt Rivers to prepare their ancestor to head home; in the backroom, they wrapped the remains in a button blanket, traditionally worn at special ceremonies such as feasts and weddings.

Then the Haida committee and Peers wrote a letter to the vice-chancellor of Oxford, formally requesting repatriation. To celebrate the new agreement between the Haida and the museum, the delegation hosted an international version of a potlatch. Finally, in December 2009, the university approved the ancestor’s return, making him the first non–North American repatriation the Haida have achieved.

The long Pitt Rivers journey is being echoed in the Haida’s talks with the British Museum’s Africa, Oceania, and the Americas department. Archives describe a chief’s skull (though they speculate that it could also be a “shaman’s cranium”), documented as taken from Naden Harbour in 1896. The museum purchased the skull and accompanying artifacts in 1919, from the collection of Lieutenant Henry Reginald Shipster.

Just because the British Museum is in a position to return the skull doesn’t mean curators want to let it go; the individual policies of the Pitt Rivers and British Museums state that they prefer to keep their collections intact for future generations. Up until about a decade ago, British law recognized museums as legal guardians of the remains in their collections, to hold them in trust for the people.

In 2003, a British working group, chaired by art and antiquities lawyer Norman Palmer (and inspired by debate around remains ownership and the right of British hospitals to use the tissue of deceased people for research), set about finalizing a set of legal guidelines for holding human remains at museums, adopted in 2004 as part of the Human Tissue Act. Nine institutions, including the British Museum, were given permission to return them to groups that could prove genealogical lineage. Further legislation the following year extended this to other institutions across the country.

“There is always room for a bit of legal ingenuity here,” explains Palmer. While he is reluctant to speculate about what the museum might decide for future requests, “If the Haida have not yet been told no, then no news is good news.”

As for the remains held at the Pitt Rivers, they were returned to Haida Gwaii in 2010 and housed for a short time within the glass halls of the Haida Heritage Centre. Afterwards, they were carried north to the cemetery in Old Massett, at the end of a road that winds its way along Masset Inlet toward the northeastern edge of the island. There, a small ceremony took place before they were reburied. Laura Peers was among those who bent down to shovel a few loads of dirt into the grave.

This appeared in the April 2013 issue.

Lyndsie Bourgon
Lyndsie Bourgon is a writer, oral historian, and 2018 National Geographic Explorer. Her first book, Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods, came out in June 2022.