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Ḥaa’yuups, a Nuu-chah-nulth artist and cultural historian from the Hupačasath First Nation on Vancouver Island, was named co-curator of the revised Northwest Coast Hall at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.Denis Finnin/American Museum of Natural History

When new regulations last month forced the American Museum of Natural History in New York to close two halls showcasing Indigenous cultures of North America, one much older area was kept open: The recently reimagined Northwest Coast Hall, which showcases treasures and cultural items from Pacific Northwest communities.

The repatriation of cultural items and artworks by museums has in recent years become a subject of great discussion, but less action. The new rules, part of the United States’s Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, intend to change that, requiring the country’s museums to search their collections for “Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects or objects of cultural patrimony,” which now require consent to exhibit.

In response, curators and staff at many museums chose to cover exhibits as they review Indigenous items – the first step in a process that could lead to the repatriation of artifacts and treasures decades or centuries after their often non-consensual removal from communities.

“The halls we are closing are vestiges of an era when museums such as ours did not respect the values, perspectives and indeed shared humanity of Indigenous peoples,” Natural History museum president Sean Decatur said in a January note to staff.

But the institution has not closed the Northwest Coast Hall – dedicated to Indigenous peoples in that region – nor covered any of its contents. The exhibits have been significantly reimagined since 2017, when the museum announced an update involving consulting curators from the Coast Salish, Gitxsan, Haida, Haíłzaqv, Kwakwaka’wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth, Nuxalk, Łingít | Tlingit and Tsimshian First Nations.

The museum named Ḥaa’yuups, a Nuu-chah-nulth artist and cultural historian from the Hupačasath First Nation on Vancouver Island, as the revised hall’s co-curator, along with Peter Whiteley, curator of North American ethnology. Because Indigenous communities were present long before modern borders, many of the artifacts on display are from First Nations in Canada.

The museum has hailed its work with Ḥaa’yuups and the consulting curators as a landmark partnership, and the lack of concealed exhibits in the Northwest Coast Hall could be interpreted as a measure of success. But in an interview with The Globe, Ḥaa’yuups described the American Museum of Natural History’s work there as still lacking, minimizing the voices and stories of Indigenous peoples as their cultural treasures serve as objects to gawk at.

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Ḥaa’yuups described the American Museum of Natural History’s work there as still lacking, with Indigenous cultural treasures serving as objects to 'gawk' at: 'To be honest about the storytelling: I think that it's shallow.'Denis Finnin/American Museum Of Natural History

“I was blown away by the beauty of the exhibits,” he said, which include a massive Haida and Heiltsuk 63-foot-long canoe made from a single cedar tree. “Not to take away from that in any way, shape or form, but to be honest about the storytelling: I think that it’s shallow.”

What did your work with the Northwest Coast Hall entail?

In choosing material for the exhibit, I had a say in very, very few pieces. That wasn’t a major discussion between myself and my co-curator. The community representatives worked with museum staff in creating local storylines, but there really wasn’t much of an overarching storyline that bound everything together. There were themes we came up with that were highlighted throughout the exhibit. I certainly was never asked my opinion about how to spend money. I felt like my role was fairly token.

How did that affect your work?

It was pretty frustrating. I said I wanted to see the new exhibit deal with racism in Canada, the racist foundation of the creation of Canada and the creation of the Indian Act, of reservations, of residential schools. To address that in a way that shows how the door was opened to collectors to vacuum the vast majority of the last remnants of our physical culture: masks, rattles, poles, all of the ceremonial trappings. Many communities have no idea where their treasures went. I wanted to see our people brought into the exhibit – to connect those beautiful treasures to real, living people. We haven’t all died off.

The concerns I talked about seem to have been addressed in a minimal way. I think the words “residential school” are used in the exhibit a couple of times. But that doesn’t mean that you’ve addressed the issue.

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So you see the exhibit as insufficient?

Museums love labels that have 20 to 30 words on them. A standard thing – small, all-but-meaningless labels. In the past, museums have highlighted the names of the rich white men who’ve donated or collected those objects. In the alcove from my area, I wanted to have the entire background of the showcases filled with the words of our people.

I was told, “If people start reading those, you’re gonna have a traffic jam.” And I said, “Imagine The New York Times with the headline: Traffic jam in the American Museum of Natural History.” Great. People would be actually reading.

Have you kept up a dialogue with the staff or your co-curator?

I sent an e-mail to Peter in the last two days. I don’t hate anybody there; I don’t want to appear at war with anybody. But I’m an oral person, and to express my feelings about it: I’m disappointed.

The museum has now closed two other halls of Indigenous exhibitions under new regulations, but it appears that the work by you and the community curators may have prevented the need to shut down the Northwest Coast Hall. I’m curious what you think of that.

One of the things I talked about during the process was repatriation. In my point of view, we still own all of our treasures. I don’t see any movement there. We need to talk about repatriating that material, bringing those treasures back to our communities and giving life to them again.

What kind of discussions did you have with the museum about repatriation?

We had a couple of conversations. Then, privately, I spoke to all of our community reps about that. In my mind, we need to repatriate material and not be restricted in the way that we do that. When museums discussed sending materials back to Cape Mudge and Alert Bay [in the 1970s], they said that when you have a facility adequate for holding these materials – in their mind – then they’d begin the process of returning them. So they had to build a multimillion-dollar structure to hold them instead of those materials, which were stolen, being returned to the families that own them.

There’s a very delicate bind between preserving the material ourselves, in our own community, and returning them to people who own them. That’s a complex thing and needs to be dealt with. We haven’t begun to talk about those kinds of things in any serious, extended way.

Does that mean you see the new American regulations as the very beginning of a conversation you hope will become much more advanced?

That’s exactly correct. For people in museums, there’s this warm and fuzzy feeling of “Haven’t we done a lot? We’ve returned 14,000 human remains.” That’s not any kind of achievement. That’s the logical thing to do. What about eye candy – these things that draw people to museums? Our treasures. The beautiful abalone-inlaid masks; people are fascinated by masks. We need to get to the place where we’re not talking about human remains. We’re talking about beautiful, highly attractive, iconic masks, rattles, poles – all of the painted, decorated, carved, Northwest Coast material that draws people from all over the world. Tools that elucidate our belief system are in their possession. We need to have them back. People who run museums need to hear from us how we feel about those things, and what our understanding, our relationship is with those things.

Do you think you were adequately heard about this at the Natural History museum?

Everyone listened. They were quiet every time I talked. But I think that people are stuck in orthodoxy. They’re afraid that if all of the Northwest Coast artifacts went back, would they have a job? We have to be aware that those are real fears. That shouldn’t stop the discussion from going on. I have a great respect for the people who work in that institution, and who helped make that beautiful display what it is. But there are deeper-rooted, older, endlessly more important stories that we’ve got to tell.

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