For decades, the masks, rattles and headdresses enthralled visitors to Victoria's Royal British Columbia Museum and the Canadian Museum of Civilization across from Parliament Hill. On Wednesday, the artifacts - nearly 300 of them - came home, to a Nisga'a village on the shores of the Nass River about 1,300 kilometres northwest of Vancouver. The items were returned under the terms of the Nisga'a Final Agreement, a landmark 2000 treaty between the Nisga'a and the governments of Canada and B.C., and will be housed in a new museum in the Nisga'a village of Laxgalts'ap. Negotiations involving the artifacts, most of which were collected in the early 1900s, began before the treaty was signed and included provisions for the Nisga'a to share artifacts on an ongoing basis with the museums.
The Nisga'a people trace their settlements and culture along the Nass River back more than 5,000 years. Today, the Nisga'a comprise an estimated 6,000 people belonging to four tribes. Beginning in the 1800s, when much of the northwestern part of B.C. was declared Crown land, the Nisga'a began seeking control over what they considered their territory. After decades of arduous negotiations, a treaty was signed in 1998 and took effect in 2000, making the Nisga'a the first self-governing aboriginal nation in Canada. Under the then-controversial pact, the Nisga'a became official owners of 2,000 square kilometres of territory in the Nass Valley and gained a broad range of law-making powers. This year, the Nisga'a government took another groundbreaking step with the decision to allow private ownership of land in its territory.
Of the items returned to the Nisga'a on Wednesday, 121 are from the Canadian Museum of Civilization and 155 from the Royal B.C. Museum. The artifacts include masks, headdresses, rattles, blankets and a totem pole. The items were to be trucked to Laxgalts'ap in crates and welcomed in a ceremony that featured dancers, prayers and a tribal picnic.
Some of the people attending the ceremony are descendants of the artists who made the artifacts, Nisga'a Nation president Mitchell Stevens said, just before the ceremony was to begin.
"We knew who the pieces belonged to and which families they belonged to because those names are still in existence today," he said.
Several major museums, including the Museum of Civilization, have "repatriated" artifacts to Indian bands in recent decades. In B.C., the U'mista Cultural Society in Alert Bay showcases masks and other items that were confiscated in years when potlatch ceremonies were deemed illegal and that have since been repatriated from museums including the British Museum and the Smithsonian Institution. The Nisga'a artifacts are the first to be returned by the Museum of Civilization as a result of a treaty.
The Nisga'a are looking to tourism as a cornerstone of future economic development, with the returned artifacts and the museum that will house them cast in a major role. The region is home to Nisga'a Memorial Lava Bed Park, the site of a volcanic explosion that in the mid-1700s sent lava streaming over two villages, killing 2,000 people; it is the first park in B.C. to be jointly managed by a first nation and the provincial government. In keeping with its desire to showcase its art and culture to other Canadians and the world, the Nisga'a will maintain relationships with both the Museum of Civilization and the Royal British Columbia Museum, Mr. Stevens said.
"What happened in the past is history, we can't change it - all we can do is move forward," he said. "The [museums]have been very instrumental in making this happen for the Nisga'a Nation.… we're not saying, 'These belong to us, we want them all back.' There are pieces in those institutions that will remain there as shared artifacts. Because the rest of the world needs to see the cultural diversity of this country of ours called Canada."