A First Nation in northern B.C. is rejoicing over the return of a century-old cultural artifact, although its members say they shouldn’t have to pay for what’s rightfully theirs.
Earlier this month the Taku River Tlingit First Nation (TRTFN) in Atlin, B.C., purchased a Chilkat (traditional form of weaving) robe from an auction house in Toronto. Not much is known about the robe other than it was originally collected from a Tlingit community on the Taku River in the 1880s.
TRTFN Elder and master carver Wayne Carlick told APTN News the robe is a significant symbol of Tlingit culture and pride.
“To actually have (it is a) masterpiece. It absolutely is incredible,” he said.
Carlick only learned of the robe’s sale last month through his friend and local Atlinite Peter Wright. He said he wasn’t particularly interested in the robe until he noticed the design included two wolves, a symbol unique to the Taku people.
“Right away, I thought maybe this is a Taku blanket robe,” he said.
The robe’s design, which includes two wolves, two ravens and a child, matches the work of noted weaver Mary Hunt, from the Yanwulihashi Hit (Drifted Ashore Clan) of the T’aaku Kwáan people.
Carlick believes the robe was likely made by Hunt for one of her children. As the Tlingit are a matrilineal people and Hunt married into a patrilineal family, Carlick assumes the robe was a symbol of Tlingit heritage.
“The reason she did that was so that her children never forget that she is matrilineal and that they follow her in Tlingit. It’s a really interesting dynamic,” he said.
Carlick noted it’s even possible the robe may have been made by Hunt’s mother whose work was known to be even more intricate.
“This might put the blanket at being made in 1830 or 1840 so it’s getting older than we thought,” he said.
The robe likely took more than a year to create and is made out of goat’s wool spun with cedar. Carlick said it is a ceremonial robe that was intended to be worn during dancing and potlatches.
The band held a GoFundMe campaign to bid on the piece that was originally expected to sell for between $15,000 and $20,000.
Although the campaign left the community short, Wright stepped in to loan the necessary funding and ended up winning the auction on behalf of the First Nation. After closing costs, the robe was sold to the band for $46,500.
Carlick said the purchase of the robe is emotional for residential school survivors like him who grew up without artifacts and other connections to their culture.
“Nobody did art. Nobody sang,” he said. “There was no regalia and everybody lived on the reserve and in poverty…It was pretty hard to do anything other than living, hard to be proud of anything.
“(This robe is) almost like a person you’ve given up hope of ever seeing again (who) walks around the corner.”
Vernon Williams, leader of the Crow Clan – one of two clans in the band’s system – , said the robe is “coming home.”
“To have artifacts come back to our territory that is rightfully belonging to us, it’s only going to make our community stronger and help the people that are struggling,” he said.
“Having that artifact come home, it might help us achieve the stuff that we’re carrying on our shoulders.”
Linda Johnson of the Dog Salmon Clan said the robe is an “eye opener” that will help “bring the people together.”
“I’ve always wondered as a child where all our regalia’s and button blankets have gone,” she said. “It’s an honor to have the blanket find its way home on our traditional territory in Atlin.”
While the First Nation is celebrating the return of the precious cultural item, Carlick said he’s pained by the fact TRTFN had to purchase an item that rightfully belongs to its people.
He said there are many stories amongst the Tlingit of impoverished families who sold cultural items to white settlers in order to survive.
A press release from the First Nation notes items were also commonly looted from grave houses or taken by European fur traders and gold seekers after epidemic diseases had decimated Tlingit communities living on the Taku.
“How was that art taken from us and under what circumstances? And how come there’s no documents about it?” Carlick said.
Joanne Williams, a TRTFN Elder and regalia maker, said she has a good idea of what happened to the robe thanks to a story passed down to her by her grandmother Elizabeth Nyman.
According to Nyman, white settlers were enforcing a potlatch ban around 1885. Tlingit living near Atlin ignored the ban and were brutally stripped of their regalia and cultural items in retaliation. Many items were burned in a bonfire, though some remaining pieces were divided amongst the wealthier white residents.
“Our weaving was incredible back thing and I think they treasured it too, although it was a stolen item,” Williams said. “I’m hoping one day we will not have to pay a dime for our stolen property to bring back to our land.”
Carlick is hopeful the robe’s return will send a message to the Federal government that Indigenous artifacts need to be returned to their communities free of charge.
“I hope this helps Canada realize what’s happening here and how these precious artifacts from our history come home. They should be here so our people can actually see the incredible pieces of artwork,” he said.
According to the TRTFN press release, the First Nation is actively working to repatriate artifacts and cultural pieces from museums and private collections.
Carlick said just recently the Smithsonian Institution, the largest museum in the world, agreed to return a Tlingit mask, something he applauds.
The robe will remain at a Vancouver museum for the next few months where it will undergo restoration work.
Next year a Tlingit celebration will be held to welcome the artefact back into the community.
“It’s almost as if the Chilkat robe said ‘I want to come home,’” Carlick said. “Finally, eventually, it comes back.”