Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Yahgu dang ang: To Pay Respect
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Indigenous peoples all over the Americas were seen as races apart, dying breeds being inevitably overrun by superior races and cultures. Mixed-blood groups like the Métis who had actively resisted encroachment by European settlers were held up as examples of the dangerous consequences of 'race mixing.' North American anthropology was formulated specifically to collate information on these 'dying races' so that all trace of them wouldn't be lost in the mists of time. Collating information included visiting villages left deserted after epidemics to strip cemeteries of the dead and their grave goods. Three such 'expeditions' to Haida Gwaii were made in 1897, 1901, and 1903. Ancestors and grave goods were taken away to museums, universities, and private collections all over North America and Europe, sometimes accompanied with labels like "Full Skeleton Adult Male."
By the late 1980s the Haida, like their relatives all over North America, had experienced a population rebound and a full-scale cultural revival was underway, lead by artists like Bill Reid. The Haida began to face down the consequences of old wrongs from a community basis, prioritizing them by consensus. One of the top priorities is bringing home the ancestors and their grave goods fur reburial.
While some of the anthropologists and other collectors may have had honorable intentions, by disturbing the remains of Haida ancestors, they were interfering with the important bonds between the ancestors, their descendants, and Haida Gwaii itself. This is not merely unjust or horrifying from the Haida perspective; it is spiritually dangerous for both themselves and the people now acting as stewards over the ancestors.
In 1995, the Haida communities of Skidegate and Old Masset established Repatriation and Cultural Committees, groups of local volunteers who took up the task of locating their ancestors and making contact with the institutions holding them. Delicate negotiations with museums, the primary holders of Haida ancestors, can take two or more years, with museum officials often ready to call legal counsel at a moment's notice.
The hostile initial reactions of many museum officials are closely tied to understandable discomfort. After all, no one wants to be held responsible for the negative actions of someone else. Museum staff often believe at first that any repatriation efforts will effectively involve an assault on the museum collections, which will then be torn apart and dispersed all over the world a feeling that the Haida Elders know very well. For their part, the Repatriation and Cultural Committees are mandated not only to repatriate ancestors, but also to build positive relationships with the institutions that have held them. Wrongs must be righted, and doing so must not cause even more hurt. They insist that the museum staff shouldn't merely feel like they have to return the ancestors; the museum staff should want to return the ancestors.
The entire process is often referred to with the phrase "Yahgu dang ang" to pay respect.
The process of repatriation literally involves the entire Haida community. Weavers make cedar bark mats and children make miniature button blankets to wrap the ancestors in. Carvers like Andy Wilson teach young people how to make bentwood boxes, and they then make boxes the ancestors will be reburied in. Others will take part in ceremonies as dancers and singers. Still others will take part by working on fundraisers or by supporting the volunteers who carry out the exhausting and exhaustive negotiation process.
The 2004 Documentary "Stolen Spirits of Haida Gwaii" shows parts of the process of actual repatriation other than the ceremonies, which aren't filmed out of respect for the Haida. Depending on how many ancestors are being retrieved, repatriation committees can number from 3 to 25 people. Among their duties is carefully transferring the ancestors from metal drawers to cloth bundles and the boxes they will travel in back to Haida Gwaii. This is difficult, emotionally draining work, especially when a given institution is holding many children. The delegates also take time to pray for the ancestors of other Nations whose remains have not yet been returned home.
As of May 2005, all Haida ancestors (over 466 people) held in institutions throughout North America had been returned to Haida Gwaii. On June 21, an "End of Mourning" Ceremony was held in Skidegate in order to lay their spirits to rest, and to help the community complete the mourning process. A celebration follows every "End of Mourning" Ceremony, celebrating the lives of those who have gone and their successful transition to the next world. This ceremony likely also celebrated the web of positive relationships developed and nourished between the many people involved in the repatriation process, Haida and institution staff alike. These relationships have flowed into new projects with those institutions similar in principle to the Blackfoot Gallery at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary.
If you'd like to learn more about the history of the Haida repatriation work and the “End of Mourning” Ceremony, it is well worth listening to this interview with Nika Collison of the Skidegate Repatriation and Cultural Committee. The Committee also has its own website.