B.C. First Nation searching the world for ancestors and artifacts

 “There was just the regular Joe taking bones.”

Klahoose First Nation is on a journey to bring its people and cultural objects back home.

Throughout Indigenous coastal communities in British Columbia, early explorers, settlers, scientists and collectors removed ancestors and artifacts without consent.

“Our teachings was that nobody else touched our dead,” says band Councillor Michelle Robinson.

“I am wondering how our ancestors felt about somebody coming along and having to let the secular world – the European world – dig up their ancestors.

“What would that have been like? It’s heartbreaking to think of what they had to go through.”

Robinson grew up on Toba Inlet listening to her family tell stories about such thefts.

“It wasn’t just loggers,” she says. “People were coming to hunt. They would go dig up remains, so there was more than just museums and different people.

“There was just the regular Joe taking bones.”

Klahoose Nation’s traditional territory spans from Cortes Island to Toba Inlet.

Their primary village is in Squirrel Cove – a small community with only 75 permanent residents.

But their collective voice is now being heard all around the world.

“This mindset that it’s OK because of education that you can hold ancestors is preposterous and it’s ridiculous, and there has to be a change in that mindset,” says Robinson.

“And how is that going to change if the little guy doesn’t speak up?”

There are more than 55,000 museums around the world and reaching out to them all would be impossible. But with the help of Jodi Simkin, the nation’s director of cultural affairs and heritage, the Klahoose have repatriated 14 ancestors.

In 2017, before the search began, Simkin calculated how many ancestors were missing by using ground penetrating radar in the Toba Inlet Cemetery.

She estimated there should be approximately 650 people, but they only found 300.

The next step was to create a detailed community profile and choose which institutions to search.

500 institutions

“We decided that we would look for the 500 top institutions that we believed that have the highest prevalence for producing material culture,” says Simkin, “and so, in this case, it’s not like opening an encyclopedia or dictionary, we actually had to research every institution.

“So we picked the 500 and created a database list, which will be available to any First Nation across Canada who want to undertake this kind of work so they don’t have to replicate that.”

It took nearly a year to create the list.

“All we ask is anybody borrowing our list – if they have additional institutions they want to add – that they add it and send it back to us so the list is a living document and continues to grow and evolve over time,” Simkin adds.

The Klahoose are not only sharing their list, but working on a free interactive app that people everywhere can use to help First Nations locate their ancestors and artifacts.

“Say you go to Egypt and you see a piece from Klahoose, you can put it in that app, it goes back to us and we find out there is a piece in Egypt,” says Robinson.

“I think it’s really huge. There are all these different ways you can start bringing awareness – getting the word out there.”

Times are changing and more and more institutions are starting to give back.

“Our ancestors and artifacts are part of our history, part of our culture and values,” says Councillor Helen Hanson.

“It helps us know who we are as Klahoose people.”

Hanson is hopeful Klahoose First Nation will someday display its cultural objects at a museum of their own.

“The younger generation will want to know where they came from so it’s very important we bring all the pieces home.”

Robinson says the honour of putting her ancestors to rest brings her to her knees.

“When you see your ancestor come out in a cardboard box with a number it’s really, really sad,” she says while crying.

“To put my hands on an ancestor and place them back in a cedar box and escort them home, and have the community come together, there’s nothing like that feeling.”