Legislative reforms needed to protect heritage

Published in Windspeaker newspaper | May 2013 | Circulation: 145,000

David-Clippings

When Margaretta James stepped into the room that today houses the Yuquot Whalers’ Shrine–a centuries-old sacred collection of carved figures, human skulls and whale sculptures–she was overwhelmed by a sense of its striking spiritual power.
“For me, it was one of those hair-raising back-of-your-neck experiences,” recalled James, director of the Land of Maquinna Cultural Society. “You could just feel the power of it.

“… you experience one of those moments you can barely describe; you erupt with feelings and emotions.”

But James was also overwhelmed by a sense of loss. Today, she and others continue the decades-long fight to bring the shrine back home to Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation on Vancouver Island. The community is closer to victory than ever.

This year marks 100 years since representatives of the American Museum of Natural History bought the shrine from two Mowachaht who falsely claimed to be its owners for $500 (worth roughly $13,000 today). But with only the Chief Whaler allowed access to the shrine, the collectors were forced to wait until the village emptied out for whaling season to secretly ship the collection to New York. The deception was devastating.

“Some people say it was stolen,” James said. “It was taken away in such a way that it was removed from site in the dead of night, when certain community members were away.

“A lot of the things were bought and sold–even by our own people–for different reasons… they were talked into selling them. Just like with any other Aboriginal group, a lot of that stuff got bought, sold or stolen… The shrine is ours; it belongs at Yuquot.”

A century later, and after numerous requests to repatriate the collection, James is confident the Mowachaht/Muchalaht bands can properly conserve the shrine upon its return in a community centre, which has already been planned, and with a new generation of young experts, curators and interpreters recently trained in anticipation of its return. Mowachaht/Muchalaht are not the only ones struggling with issues around the protection of ancient artifacts, however.

Increasingly, tribes are demanding more federal and provincial legislation to protect sacred items from being sold in auction houses and held in museums without First Nations’ permission. But Canada, it turns out, has much less legislative protection for Aboriginal heritage than in the U.S., where the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) offers wide grounds for the repatriation of sacred items.

Heritage activists want the federal government to “step up to the plate,” James said, to ensure no more culture is lost.

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