A B.C. First Nations mask that made headlines after a U.S. art museum wagered it in a Super Bowl bet is returning home to British Columbia next month for a community celebration. Officials from the Seattle Art Museum will bring the Nuxalk forehead mask back to Bella Coola for a few days, where it's sure to be a highlight of the much-anticipated potlatch.
"It's going to be awesome, very awesome," said Nuxalk chief Wally Webber, who was blindsided by the wager when it was made public in January. "It's going to be a godsend to have it come home, even just for a short while."
Noting that it was reminiscent of a "mighty Seahawk," the Seattle Art Museum offered up the mask in a bet with its Denver counterpart where the winning city would receive a specified piece of art on loan from the losing city's museum. The offer was withdrawn after the Nuxalk Nation, which had not been consulted, expressed its concern about a sacred ceremonial treasure being used in this way.
"It was an insult to us, putting that mask up for a bet, a wager. But now they know that they shouldn't be doing stuff like that," Chief Webber said. "I'm pretty sure that these museums have a manual on how to deal with stuff like this, but someone didn't pay attention to it."
SAM officials tackled the controversy head-on, offering up a different piece of art for the wager (the Seahawks won the game and Frederic Remington's The Broncho Buster was sent to Seattle from Denver); apologizing to the Nuxalk repeatedly for the fumble; and also engaging in talks with them about making amends. This ultimately led to the plan to bring the mask back to Bella Coola for the Charles Nelson Potlatch on Sept. 27. The alder and red cedar bark mask, made around 1880, has not been back to Bella Coola since it left "God, over 100 years ago," said Chief Webber.
With the Nuxalk planning to dance the mask, the potlatch is expected to draw a large crowd – Chief Webber predicts more than a thousand people will attend. "Everyone's excited for it to come home," he said.
Nuxalk master carvers will prepare the mask for use in the ceremony. And while in Bella Coola, it will be photographed from every angle so that Nuxalk carvers can make a replica. Chief Webber also wants to investigate the possibility of a long-term loan so that the mask can spend a longer time in the remote community.
Accompanying the mask to B.C. will be SAM director and CEO Kimerly Rorschach and Barbara Brotherton, SAM's Curator of Native American Art.
"I'm sure it's going to be very moving, in that these are ancestors to them, in a sense," said Dr. Brotherton. "It's good for museum people to see that kind of esteem and emotional connection that the living community has for these pieces. 'Cause you know they're so dislocated from that when they're in the museum display."
Dr. Brotherton sees the mask's visit as a happy ending – but "also a happy beginning." She points out that there are other Nuxalk pieces in the SAM collection, and she says the relationship the museum is establishing with the Nuxalk people will ultimately benefit the artifacts, and the museum. "We're sensitive that the authority about a lot of these works belongs with the community, but sometimes we make executive decisions. And I think in that case it was a misstep. So we have learned [from] that."