Dozens of cultural items from the Royal BC Museum returned to Snuneymuxw: “It took a long time”


Snuneymuxw artist William Good joins other community members in viewing over 100 artifacts returned to the First Nation from the Royal BC Museum on May 23. Photo by Julie Chadwick/The Discourse

On a long table in the back of the gymnasium of the Snuneymuxw First Nation (SFN) Recreation and Wellness Centre, dozens of sacred cultural artifacts were laid out in boxes for community members to view.

On May 23, the nation held a ceremony to welcome the items home after the Royal BC Museum in Victoria returned nearly 100 items from its collection, including stone bowls and hand splitters, a herring dryer, a spindle whorl, and tools for carding and berry picking wool, from various sites throughout the Snuneymuxw territory.

After community members had inspected the objects, the media were invited to view and photograph some of them.

One object immediately caught the eye: a shiny black pendant in a box, among other jewelry-like cultural artifacts made of stone and bone.

The pendant is just over three inches long and about four and a half inches wide. It is a stylized beetle in an oval shape with large round eyes and a hole in the top for hanging. Although it looks like obsidian, it is carved from charcoal.

I know this because the pendant was described to me in detail by Indigenous Coast Salish artist and storyteller Eliot White-Hill of Kwulasultun, SFN, when I attended his Master of Fine Arts thesis exhibition last April.

SFN member Kate Good holds a beetle pendant made from carved charcoal. Photo by Julie Chadwick/The Discourse

In disbelief, I looked around the gymnasium to see if Eliot was there and spotted him at one of the tables set up for the parishioners' lunch.

“Eliot, the beetle pendant – am I crazy or is that the one you told me about?” I said, a little out of breath, my head spinning.

He nodded and said he was “stunned.” He had no idea the pendant was part of the Royal BC Museum's collection, nor that it was among the objects to be returned to the nation that day.

Eliot had just returned that day from a research trip for the University of Cambridge's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where he was preparing an exhibition to open there in December. After hearing the news of the repatriation on social media, he scrambled to get an earlier ferry so he could visit the exhibition.

The reason the pendant is so striking is because its presence and image were one of the central themes in Eliot's exhibition and master's thesis. What is Sacred: Reviving Coast Salish Arts and Culture.

One of the pieces he exhibited last year is the digital collage “Not a single Snuneymuxw name,” which uses an image of the beetle pendant from the cover of the Royal BC Museum’s 1986 archaeological report. Senewélets: Cultural History of the Nanaimo Coast Salish and the False Narrows Midden.

In his paper, Eliot removes the picture of the follower and replaces it with the repetitive title phrase, which refers to the fact that the report attempts to address the importance and value of Snuneymuxw culture and artifacts, but fails to mention or cite a single Snuneymuxw member, elder, or knowledge holder.

Eliot White-Hill, Kwulasultun's digital collage “Not a Single Snuneymuxw Name.” Photo by Julie Chadwick/The Discourse

The report contains details of an archaeological excavation that took place between 1966 and 1967 on “Gabriola Island” at a burial site in the False Narrows area. This pendant was removed from the burial site of a young man who was elaborately decorated and in a way that suggested high status, wrote author David Burley, professor of archaeology at Simon Fraser University.

Visually, the pendant is a remarkable work of art, said Eliot.

“This 'beetle pendant' is one of my favorite examples of Coast Salish art ever. It is so unique and strange compared to most Coast Salish objects of the period,” he wrote in his senior thesis. “The fact that it depicts an insect is incredibly unique. Our art has often been used historically to depict beings that were spiritual helpers to people.”

Still, he recognizes that repatriation is an incredibly complex and sensitive issue with many facets. As a young Snuneymuwx member trying to understand his own history and culture, these objects are tied to postcolonial efforts to reconnect and engage with them, he said.

“I was so blown away when I saw it there in public. It dawned on me that the whole table was probably made up of objects that came from burial sites, which radiates a really intense energy,” Eliot said.

“The big problem is that these objects and possessions do not belong in museums. I have spent the last few months travelling around the world looking at museum collections and I am still processing all of this.

“But everywhere I went, I found objects and belongings that my ancestors had made in Snuneymuxw. And for some reason, they're sitting on the collection shelves of the warehouses of these different museums around the world. Many of them aren't even on display, some are on display when they shouldn't be, and all of them are so decontextualized and so disrespected. So the work of bringing them home is really important.”

A wool carder (above) that belonged to Tilly Bob of Nanaimo and was acquired by the museum in 1984. To the left is Bob's berry picker, which he used to pick soopalallie, or blueberries. Photo by Julie Chadwick/The Discourse

As the driving force behind the revival of the Snuneymuxw carving style, artist William Good had to research his own community's art form abroad. He searched museums and archives in “Canada” and the “USA” for examples and asked for photographs and replicas of artifacts. It was a lifelong art revitalization project that included consultations with elders, examination of historical pieces, and cross-referencing with stories he grew up with.

When the Good family visited the Field Museum in Chicago last summer, they saw many Coast Salish artifacts, including some from Snuneymuxw, that had mixed feelings about them, says Aunalee Boyd-Good, who, along with her sister Sophia Good, is one of the designers and directors of Ay Lelum The Good House of Design.

The ethics of museums and galleries displaying artifacts, sacred cultural objects, and even human remains stolen, “donated,” or purchased under dubious circumstances by First Nations communities and private collectors, as well as the ethics of when and how these items should be repatriated, have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years.

Earlier this month, IndigiNews editor Eden Fineday wrote two haunting articles about the discovery that her great-great-grandfather's remains were housed in a Smithsonian warehouse after his grave was ransacked by an Army surgeon named Charles E. Woodruff.

An article about the return of a stolen Nisg̱a'a totem pole from a Scottish museum by IndigiNews editor Cara McKenna and The Narwhal reporter Matt Simmons explored how the return of such items could serve as a model for the return of Indigenous property. The article won a 2024 National Newspaper Award.

The future of the items returned to Snuneymuxw has yet to be decided, and their return has been “a long time coming,” said Snuneymuxw elder Geraldine Manson, who attended the May 23 event.

“It was many, many years ago, and we talked about repatriation when I was on the council in 2000. That's when we started looking at repatriation. We have a mask in New York that needs to be brought home.

“What other objects are there? These objects from the Royal BC Museum – that's just a portion of it. There are other objects from that museum that need to be brought home as well,” she said. “It's a start. I'm grateful that our leadership has cleared the way to make this possible.”

This spindle whorl was donated to the museum in 1894 and, according to the museum notes, was “used for spinning hair from mountain goats for blankets.” It was probably taken by Captain Newton Henry Chittendon on April 9, 1884, when his boat stopped at Stiil'nep (Departure Bay), but it is not certain. Photo by Julie Chadwick/The Discourse

Chief Michael Wyse (Xumtilum) has made repatriation a priority for 2024, and leadership has partnered with the Nanaimo Museum to identify Snuneymuxw sacred objects in various museums around the world and formally request their return, according to a statement from the First Nation's media spokesperson.

When Snuneymuxw submitted a request to the Royal BC Museum in January, they received a response within weeks.

“Times have changed when it comes to repatriation,” said a statement from the First Nation, which plans to find a home for the repatriated objects in its buildings so they can be experienced by community members. “Some will be on display and others will be kept more privately. Our ultimate plan is to create a presentation space and cultural centre to house our sacred objects.”