Treasures return from exile

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      It’s a homecoming of sorts. Forty-eight Tsimshian First Nation artifacts, collected in 1863 by the missionary Robert J. Dundas, are revisiting their place of origin, the Northwest Coast. During their long absence, these items—including a portrait-like human facemask, an elaborately carved bentwood trunk, crest hats, shamanic figures, clappers, grease bowls, and antler clubs—sat in the curiosity cabinets of Dundas’s descendants in Scotland and England, where kids would grab them for dress-up or show-and-tell.

      In 2006, these same objects sold for a total of US$7 million at a Sotheby’s auction in New York. Strategic bidding by Canadian private art collectors and museum officials ensured the return of the majority to this country, as well as a public tour before their dispersal to new owners. To honour the objects’ Skeena River–area heritage, the first exhibit of Treasures of the Tsimshian From the Dundas Collection took place in Prince Rupert early last year. Its final one opens at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology on Sunday (February 3), and runs to June 7.

      The situation is both cheering and frustrating for William White, a Tsimshian Chilkat weaver who has contributed an essay to the exhibit catalogue. While clearly pleased that fellow Canadians stepped up to claim their cultural heritage (in the absence of active government support), he pointed out that the items will not remain within the culture that created them.

      “They haven’t been repatriated. They’ve been bought by very enlightened people that see the bigger picture,” White said during a long-distance phone call. “My wish, and the Tsimshian’s wish, is that the collection would come back and reside in our territory, in our museum. Maybe if I keep praying, they’ll come home.”

      White recalled that the Tsimshian community avidly discussed the collection during the exhibition in Prince Rupert. Many community members learned the history of the collection for the first time—the story of how another missionary, William Duncan, initially gathered the objects while establishing a “model” Native Christian community at Metlakatla. Converts may have given the pieces to Duncan as a sign of fealty, but Duncan’s handover or sale of the artifacts to Dundas (the historical record is unclear as to whether a purchase was involved) remains contentious to this day.

      For White, the exhibit is a chance to revere and study the work of his ancestors. To him, the crest-figure and Naxnox (spiritual power) designs on the bentwood box are the work of a master. The eerily realistic facemask also spoke to him so strongly that he purchased a similar one by a contemporary artist for his own use at feasts.

      Even the everyday objects, White added, echo into the present: they have the same animal crests that are worn on silk-screened T-shirts in today’s Tsimshian community.

      “No matter where the pieces are, no matter who legally owns them, we always consider them to be ours,” White said. “It’s extremely important that the rest of the world sees this collection as a whole, as a part of being Tsimshian and a part of our culture that still continues.”

      Given the issues these pieces raise the museum has scheduled public discussions, some involving Tsimshian elders and leaders, throughout the run of the show. There will also be a free opening ceremony featuring Tsimshian dancers, on Sunday at 3 p.m. For details, visit