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Vancouver Island First Nation plans repatriation of Royal BC Museum treasures

“We are just scratching the surface of reconciliation by bringing some of our treasures home.”
Huu-ay-aht First Nations Hereditary Chief Derek Peters said he appreciates the care and protection of the nations’ cultural treasures, and that it is time they return home. (PHOTO COURTESY HUU-AY-AHT FIRST NATIONS)

A Vancouver Island First Nation has received a grant to help repatriate some of the nations’ cultural treasures.

The Huu-ay-aht First Nations and 24 other nations received a total of $454,000 in May to fund repatriation research and activities.

Bringing home Huu-ay-aht treasures was one of the items the Huu-ay-aht nations planned once the Maa-Nulth Treaty was signed more than a decade ago. This will be the second round of treasures repatriated, Coun. Edward R. Johnson said. “We celebrated together in 2016 as we watched many of our cultural treasures were returned. Our history was extracted from us, and this is about bringing back a little bit of our history, one piece at a time, knowing that our treasures are scattered all over the world.”

READ MORE: Huu-ay-aht welcome cultural treasures

Johnson said repatriating treasures is a key part of recognizing the past. “We are just scratching the surface of reconciliation by bringing some of our treasures home.”

The Huu-ay-aht’s $35,000 grant will be used to identify and catalogue items the nation wants repatriated from the Royal British Columbia Museum (RBCM) in Victoria. The nations have a tentative list of items at the museum but may not be able to bring back all of them depending on how delicate they are. Some of their discoveries or collection date back to the early 1900s and may need to be handled or displayed with special attention or conditions.

Throughout the history of Canada, Indigenous peoples have had their belongings, language, culture and even ancestors taken from them and housed in museums, universities and private collections around the world. For decades, Indigenous leaders—including Huu-ay-aht—have worked tirelessly to support the return of their communities’ ancestors and cultural patrimony.

The RBCM collection includes some larger items belonging to Huu-ay-aht such as two welcome figures measuring 13-14 feet that are inside the front entrance of the museum and two house posts that are large in diameter and approximately 10 feet tall. An expert in such treasures will work with a Huu-ay-aht elder to determine which items should be brought home. They also have to negotiate an access time at the RBCM, which has been closed to the public for more than a year due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The Huu-ay-aht are in the process of building a cultural centre in their traditional territory of Anacla on the west coast of Vancouver Island where cultural treasures will be housed. Land has been cleared for the centre beside the House of Huu-ay-aht in upper Anacla and the scope of the project will include a museum-like setting for the treasures. This will hopefully include an HVAC system and protective lighting, according to the nation.

Any treasures won’t be repatriated until the cultural centre is ready, likely in the spring of 2023. There is no deadline to retrieve them from the RBCM. A repatriation ceremony would be held to welcome the treasures home, as happened in 2016.

“These items were bought or taken from our ancestors and it’s time that we bring them home where they belong,” explained hereditary Chief Derek Peters. He added that the Huu-ay-aht appreciate the care and protection the RBCM has given to the nations’ treasures.

“The effort made by the province and the museum shows respect for our history and reconciliation in action. It honours our sacred principles of ?iisaak (utmost respect), ?uu?athuk (taking care of) and Hisuk ma cawak (everything is one) and ensures future generations do not have to go to a museum to experience their history.”

Susie Quinn

About the Author: Susie Quinn

A journalist since 1987, I proudly serve as the Alberni Valley News editor.
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