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Namgis First Nations tribe ask British Museum to return masks

A Canadian First Nations group has requested that the British Museum returns some masks that were taken from their ancestors, but the British Museum has declined to consider the case for returning them.

New York Times [1]

September 18, 2003
Reclaiming the Stolen Faces of Their Forefathers

ALERT BAY, British Columbia — A local newspaper column last year suggested that the Namgis, a small band of Native Canadians in British Columbia, ought to go to London and steal the Crown Jewels to get some bargaining leverage over the British Museum.

The half facetious idea came after the group had tried diplomacy for several years to get back a beloved wooden mask stolen from them 82 years ago that is now boxed up in a storage room of the museum.

But the British Museum believes it knows best how to preserve the ceremonial mask for scholarly study.

“There is a legal duty for us to hold these things in trust and make them available to scholars and put them on display,” said Stephen Corri, deputy secretary of the museum, in a telephone interview.

Greeks who want back the Elgin marbles have heard much the same, as have the Ethiopians who want back their ark of the covenant carvings. But the small Namgis nation, an estimated 1,400 people who live off fishing salmon, crab and halibut, say they will not rest in their efforts to be an inspirational vanguard for all aboriginal people and descendants of ancient peoples who want their stolen treasures back.

“It would be good if getting back the mask would be precedent-setting so everybody who wants their pieces get them back,” said Andrea Sanborn, administrator of the U’mista Cultural Center, a local museum here that showcases dozens of ceremonial family heirlooms that the Namgis have painstakingly retrieved over the last 35 years.

The people who live in this bucolic corner of Canada’s Pacific coast say retrieval of the mask — a beautifully carved and brightly painted crest that opens into a sullen, wide-eyed human face with what looks like sun rays protruding from around its circumference — is part of a broad effort to reverse a cultural theft by Christian missionaries and a series of Canadian governments.

The mask is one piece in a collection of scores of ceremonial family heirlooms that were confiscated in 1921 by a local government Indian agent and a police sergeant during a raid on a ceremony known as a potlatch that was outlawed by the Canadian government from 1884 to 1951 in an effort to repress native language and culture.

Potlatches are performed during marriages, the erection of totem poles and other milestone events, and they intricately weave dances, songs and masks to portray a rich mythical tradition.

Forty-five people were arrested during the 1921 ceremony, and 20 were sentenced to prison terms of two or three months. The others were released when they agreed to hand over hundreds of ceremonial masks and whistles to the officers, who sold some of the pieces and gave others to the central government.

Most were eventually exhibited in the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and returned in the 1970’s and 1980’s to be put on display in the U’mista Cultural Center. The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian repatriated nine objects in the mid 1990’s.

The U’mista center displays century-old masks of immaculate detail depicting bears, ravens, whales, wolves, the sun and the moon — representations of a rich cosmology detailed with sea lion whiskers, abalone shells, petrified whale bone and capes made of ermine skins.

As the Namgis nation retrieved the pieces, they were shown to elders for explanations of their meanings and reconstructions of songs and myths that went with them. Hundreds of video and audio tapes have been made to record the oral history, and they have been used to fuel a renaissance of interest in the local native language and traditional dances.

Only this month, a beautifully carved frontlet showing a man with teeth and eyes made of abalone shells was voluntarily returned by a Parisian collector. Assorted anthropologists and collectors are searching for at least nine more missing pieces, which along with the mask in the British Museum, are thought to be keys to knowledge that only the eldest in the community can unlock.

The Namgis are concentrating their efforts on lobbying religious groups, the Canadian government, the British government and the British Museum itself to get back the mask — the one remaining piece they are sure remains in a museum collection.

Local experts say they do not know much about the mask except that it is connected to myths of the supernatural. They say that once they get the mask back, telltale markings inside the mask may offer clues tying it to a particular family, song and myth.

The British Museum has so far handed over only pictures of the mask, arguing that the relic was obtained legally in 1944 from the widow of a collector. It has said it is ready to discuss allowing an Indian carver to make a copy.

But that is not enough for the Namgis. At a recent ceremony, the Namgis chief, Bill Cranmer, told his people, “That one mask is still in jail in the British Museum.”