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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


October 5, 2002 - Issue 71


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The Bones are Coming Home
After 100 years in a museum vault, New York is returning the bones of 48 Haida, snatched long ago by explorers, to their descendants.

by MIRO CERNETIG The Globe and Mail - Saturday, September 21, 2002 - Page F2
credits: "Heritage" Original oil 24" x 36" by Gordon Miller © 1989 Civilization Canada
"Heritage" by Gordon MillerNEW YORK -- For years, Andy Wilson camped out on Anthony Island, a Haida hired by his people to protect ancient totem poles and abandoned village sites from grave robbers. Sailing into the bay, at the tip of the dagger-shaped archipelago off Canada's West Coast, you would usually find him on the beach of that ghost village.

Much of his day was spent gently pulling out weeds from the mortuary totems, whose delicate cedar had turned silver and felt as soft as a sponge. Occasionally, he would reach down, picking up a human bone among the Pacific seashells.

Put him back where he belongs, he once instructed me on a visit in 1989, pointing up at a decaying mortuary pole, atop which Haida left their dead to slowly dissolve back into the rain forest.

But Mr. Wilson was always troubled, if not haunted, by a sensation of something missing. When I was working down there, I always looked around and wondered, 'Where are all our people?' There were no human remains left, or at least not very many. But I never knew who to ask about what happened.

The answer, or at least part of it, came this week, when he and 25 Haida arrived at Manhattan's American Museum of Natural History. They retrieved the bones of 48 Haida from storage vaults on Thursday. They included 11 complete skeletons, each packed into separate boxes for the past 100 years.

By the weekend, all are expected to be back in the Queen Charlotte Islands, known as Haida Gwaii, where preparations are under way to lay their wandering spirits to rest. The skeletons are to be wrapped in cedar mats and button blankets. They will then be placed in traditional cedar bent boxes; this time they will be put underground, in the graveyards at Old Massett and Skidegate.

We're burying them this time, advised Mr. Wilson, a cultural historian who has built more than 300 bentwood boxes for each recovered ancestor. We don't want them being taken away again.

It closes a macabre chapter on the practice of body snatching in the name of science. A century ago, it was common for explorers and anthropologists to rob graves from the Arctic to South America, collecting specimens of what they deemed dying races. In the Queen Charlottes, where smallpox and other diseases decimated the Haida from a population of 10,000 to 588 by 1915, nobody could stop them.

People knew it happened, Mr. Wilson said. But nobody talked about it. I think people were afraid of the museums, the governments, the Department of Indian Affairs. But I don't think they're afraid any more.

That turning point came in the mid-1990s. The Haida had settled their land claim with Canada, ushering in a period of cultural and political renaissance. Then, at a meeting about six years go, Mr. Wilson remembers an elder asking about the missing bones. We decided to find out, he recalled. So we started writing letters to all the museums.

After years of correspondence, the bones started coming home: Canadian museums agreed to return pilfered bones. In 1998, a dozen sets of remains were handed over by Victoria's Royal British Columbia Museum. The next year, the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology gave back its six skeletons. Two years ago, the Museum of Civilization gave up 148 sets of bones.

It was time, the Haida collective decided, to turn their attention beyond Canada.

The American Museum of Natural History, an imposing castle-like building on Manhattan's wealthy Upper West Side, was founded in 1869 in the name of science. It has long trumpeted its thousands of expeditions, sending scientists and explorers to every continent since 1887. It built up a priceless collection of 32 million items, ranging from bone shards to dinosaurs.

Until recently, it has been tone deaf to the pleas of native peoples. But on Thursday, the museum returned the Haida skeletons voluntarily and with little publicity.

Museums still maintain there are scientific reasons to hang onto their collections of old bones; they can offer vital clues about man's evolution as well as DNA evidence of his migration patterns. But there is a new sensibility.

Times, of course, have changed, there's a different level of sensitivity and respect toward native people, said Craig Morris, a respected anthropologist who is also the museum's dean of science. One has to look very carefully on a case-by-case basis and try to make the best decisions we can as to what's more important -- the scientific consideration or the ... interest of the descendants.

This week, the Haida won over the scientific record in New York. But it was not total victory. They had hoped to come back to Canada with 131 more ancestors held at Chicago's Field Museum. Even though the Haida had raised $50,000 through charity, to come to the United States, at the last moment, the institution backed down, Mr. Wilson lamented.

Sitting on the steps of the New York museum, minutes after wrapping up the last bones and waiting for a visit with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, he said it was his last trip. I'm going home to go fly-fishing for Coho salmon.

But others are fighting on, their eyes on what may be the most daunting museum vault yet to crack: London's Royal British Museum, known for its refusal to give anything back, including the famed Elgin marbles that the British Empire took from the Greek Parthenon.

Late one night, said Lucille Bell, another Haida who travelled to the museum, I heard children's voices in the stairway. I thought it was odd that children would be there so late. The guard said I was the only person there. I later learned that a 10-year-old Haida child's skeleton is a part of the collection. I believe the spirit of this child wanted me to know he was there. To me, I was given a message to take to the Haida community.


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