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. Anyone who was deemed a "mixed-blood" by european "settlers" were held up as dangerous examples of "race mixing," especially the Red River Métis, who were conveniently interpreted by the settler state as disordered "breeds," not a new nation. 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, and descending on impoverished Indigenous communities to buy regalia and anything "exotic" looking at cut rate prices while patting themselves on the back for their generosity. Three cemetery-stripping "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." No matter that these people had names and were known to their relatives, or that at times the raids followed within days of a funeral.
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 for reburial via the work of the Haida Repatriation Committee, which defines itself on its website as "a group of volunteers who have taken on the responsibility for bringing home the remains of our ancestors, grave materials and ancient Haida treasures from museums and private collections around the world."
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.
Logo of the Skidegate Repatriation and Cultural Committee, March 2018
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. There is no sign that the museum staff have noticed any irony in their responses. 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 Repatriation and Cultural Committee describes their process in detail, including the paperwork and ceremony involved.
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 and the ceremonies themselves. 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. Consider how difficult it must be for these committee members to know there are still ancestors from so many other Nations in those museums.
As of May 2005, all Haida ancestors, over 466 people, are 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 celebrates the web of positive relationships developed and nourished between the many people involved in the repatriation process, Haida and institution staff alike. Nika Collison of the Skidegate Repatriation and Cultural Committee took part in an interview with members of the vancouver Red Eye radio collective discussing the 2005 end of mourning ceremony.
For those readers who might be thinking that grave-robbing and general appalling treatment of ancestors has ended, unfortunately this is far from true. For one infamous example, look up the over twenty year odyssey and court battle to return the Ancient One whose remains were uncovered by a flood in the columbia river region. Or do some web searching on the so-called "dakota access pipeline project" in which contractors not only attacked land and water protectors, but also made a point of bulldozing and destroying Indigenous cemeteries and historic sites.