There is a granite statue, catalogue #152, accession #190, in Storage Room 33 of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington, in Seattle. It gazes out on its confines with the elliptical eyes that are typical of human representation in pre-Columbian Northwest Coast art. There is nothing quite like it anywhere on earth.
About 200 kilometres to the northwest, in the mountains above Vedder Crossing, there is a place on the Chilliwack River, near Slesse Creek, where something extraordinary is said to have occurred back in the mists of time. The event involved T'ixwelíƒ ¡tsa, the founding ancestor of the Chilliwack tribe.
The thing that connects the stone in the collections of the Burke Museum with the founding father of the Chilliwack people is a thing you can describe in the Halkomelem language as shxweli, or smestíƒ yexw. Both of these terms can be roughly translated into the English as “soul” or “life force” . The Chilliwack elders say the living soul of T'ixwelíƒ ¡tsa resides within that stone statue at the Burke Museum.
Just how that could be possible is explained in the epic story of X:als, the Great Transformer.
A long time ago, the physical world was unstable, and there was disorder and chaos among living things. People and animals had not been properly set apart, and people, especially, were pretty clueless about how they should behave, especially in regard to one another. It was at this time in history that X:als came from the west. He moved through the world, changing things, setting things right, and instructing people in proper conduct.
During his travels, X:als encountered a human being, a man, fishing on the Chilliwack River. The man was T'ixwelíƒ ¡tsa, and as he was fishing he was berating his wife for something and otherwise acting badly. So X:als turned him into stone.
Down through the ages, generations of Chilliwack people cared for the stone T'ixwelíƒ ¡tsa, assigning him a place of honour outside the great houses of important Chilliwack families. The statue was venerated as physical evidence of the Chilliwacks' association with their homelands from the beginning of time, and also of that moment in history when X:als moved across the face of the earth and created a world in which people flourished and prospered.
Then came the smallpox, wave upon wave of European settlement, and confinement to Native reserves. The Chilliwacks were decimated, and there were empty villages everywhere. The Potlatch Law of 1884 disrupted the persistence of customary law by prohibiting the ceremonial assignment of duties, entitlements, and property. The Chilliwacks' stone ancestor ended up alone in the ruins of an abandoned village, just east of the Huntington border crossing, south of Abbotsford.
On September 15, 1892, an article appeared in the Chilliwack Progress reporting that the Ward brothers, whose farm was situated not far from Vedder Crossing, had come upon “a curiously carved Indian image” on Sumas Prairie. “The image is about four feet high, and weighs about 600 lbs. It is evidently very ancient, and is quite intact, every detail being clearly defined.”
A century later, Herb Joe, chief of the Tzeachten band of the Chilliwack tribe””the man who had also inherited the name T'ixwelíƒ ¡tsa””learned that the stone containing the soul of his tribe's ancestor, the statue that had been so long venerated by the Chilliwack people, was in the possession of the Burke Museum in Seattle.
Joe set in motion a process of negotiations, research, applications, and proceedings under the United States' Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). And the result, after all these years, is that the T'ixwelíƒ ¡tsa stone, catalogue #152, accession #190, is finally coming home.
I caught up with Joe recently and he was still struggling for words, weeks after learning that the quest he began in 1992 was finally becoming realized. “It's just so overwhelming,” said Joe, 62. “I can't say how I feel about it. But it's so exciting. I feel so grateful and fulfilled.”
Joe had especially kind words for Dave Schaepe, an archeologist with the Sto:lo Nation, which includes the Chilliwack tribe and the Chilliwack's nine member communities. Schaepe has been working diligently on the case for a decade.
Schaepe said the object is unique, so it's difficult to use comparisons from other cultures to describe the significance of the T'ixwelíƒ ¡tsa stone to the Chilliwack people.
Imagine if Moses came down from Mount Sinai but instead of returning with commandments on a stone tablet he was turned to stone himself. “It would be a bit like that,” Schaepe said.
The place the stone occupies in Chilliwack culture and history is so distinct that the case for repatriation under NAGPRA was made under the law's provisions for returning “objects of cultural patrimony” as well as its regulations governing the disposition of human remains.
Because NAGPRA doesn't allow for objects to be directly transferred outside the United States, the stone will be handed over to the Chilliwack's American neighbours in the Nooksack tribe at a Seattle ceremony on October 6. Shortly thereafter, the stone will be brought back across the border, and a huge tribal welcoming ceremony is planned for October 14 at the Sumas Longhouse on the Kilgard reserve.
The stone will be kept at the Chilliwack tribal offices for the time being, but Chilliwack leaders are already in discussions with architects about constructing a suitable place for it at a new “healing centre” for troubled aboriginal families.
Coincidentally, the centre is located on the banks of the Chilliwack River, in the mountains above Vedder Crossing, at almost exactly the spot where X:als is said to have encountered a certain man arguing with his wife many years ago.