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Planning a Homecoming for Indians' Remains


A raven, as the legend goes, grew tired, and so dropped stones into the sea and created the Haida Gwaii islands to have a place to rest.

Things did not work out so well for man.

In the late 19th century, collectors visiting the islands, which belong to British Columbia and are just south of Alaska, left with the remains of hundreds of American Indians. In recent years, museums all over the world have identified Haida bones, skulls and entire skeletons as part of their collections.

The descendants of the Haida (pronounced HY-dah) want the remains back. This week, the American Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side will hand over the bones of 48 Haidas, to be flown back to the islands, which were renamed the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1787.

"We consider them to be our grandfathers and grandmothers," said Nika Collison of Skidegate, on the northernmost island, a leader in the Haida repatriation movement and one of 25 delegates who flew to New York City on Saturday to fetch the remains, which the museum volunteered to turn over two years ago.

Other requests for repatriation have not gone as smoothly, especially when museums were asked for valuable burial artifacts that they have carefully preserved.

Scholars believe that the Haida remains were taken from the islands after a smallpox epidemic all but wiped out the tribes in the late 19th century, reducing the population to about 600 from 10,000. American Indians did not bury their dead then, but laid them to rest in special places above ground.

No one knows the exact ages of the Haida remains, and individual remains cannot be identified without "some crazy testing," Ms. Collison said, for which there are no plans. "Generally we know where they were taken from because of collectors' notes," she said. About 14 of the 48 remains have yet to be traced to a specific part of the islands, which were a hub of fur trading between the Haida and Europeans.

Today, the Haida make up about one-third of the islands' 6,000 residents, Ms. Collison said. The Haida Repatriation Committee, formed in 1995, is a group of volunteers devoted to bringing their ancestors back home for a proper burial.

Canadian museums have returned more than 700 skeletal remains to American Indian communities in British Columbia, including the Haida. Last week, a museum in Oakland, Calif., became the first museum in the United States to hand over Haida remains, a skeleton. The American Museum of Natural History is the second. The remains of 138 Haidas are in the Field Museum in Chicago, Ms. Collison said, and an additional seven Haida bones are in museums in Washington.

Yesterday, the Haida delegates performed native songs and dances at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian in Lower Manhattan. The sound of handheld drums thundered through a large domed hall as men and women danced and chanted aboriginal songs. One man wore the costume of an eagle, another that of a raven, representing two towns on the northernmost island Old Massett and Skidegate, about 70 miles south.

There is a special repatriation song based on a butterfly, Ms. Collison explained to the crowd.

"The butterfly is a culture that represents the traveling spirits and wandering souls of those who have left," she said. "Those ancestors are wandering."

On Thursday the delegates will meet with American Museum of Natural History officials for the first formal ceremony leading to the actual repatriation. After that, the remains, which are sealed in plastic containers, will be prayed over and spoken to in Haida, to comfort them. The only time they are to be left alone, Ms. Collison said, is during the plane trip back to British Columbia. Ceremonies on the islands will take place Sept. 26 and 28.

Dorothy Bell, 85, of Old Massett, is the oldest of the delegates. She joined the group on a recent repatriation trip to Vancouver, British Columbia. "We talked Haida" to the remains, she recalled, "and said they're going back to Haida Gwaii, and they should be happy." Then everyone heard drums in the distance, and took it as a sign that their ancestors "were happy to go home."

"We see it as a healing process," Andy Wilson, 49, a cultural interpreter for visitors to Skidegate, said of repatriation. "When we got our numbers up, we realized we had to get to those museums to bring our ancestors home."

At the island ceremony later this month, food will be burned for "feeding the spirits" of the dead, said Mary Swanson, 78. Those in attendance will feast as well, and each box of remains will be wrapped in a tiny blanket made by elementary school students.

Then they will be buried, finally, and marked with a cross.

Haida to bring home ancestors' bones

B.C. natives claim skeletons that have lain for 100 years in filing cabinets of N.Y. museum


Monday, September 16, 2002 Page A7

NEW YORK -- For more than 100 years, the bones of 48 Haida have languished in the storage vaults of New York's American Museum of Natural History, taken from their graves by explorers, anthropologists and amateur collectors who said they were preserving remnants of a dying indigenous race for posterity and science.

Yesterday, 26 Haida were in Manhattan to rectify what they view as brazen grave-robbing that has left thousands of human skeletons languishing in the storage rooms and steel filing cabinets of the world's museums.

"Just in case you're wondering, us Haida are here for a reason," Nika Collison told a small crowd of New Yorkers during a traditional dance ceremony at the nearby National Museum of the American Indian, which has been helping the Haida prepare for their trip to New York.

After the ceremony, meant by the Haida to be a "clearing of the air," Ms. Collison said the Haida were in New York "to bring some of our ancestors home."

It was a moment largely overlooked in New York, but it was culturally significant nonetheless, coming after two years of negotiations with the museum on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Thursday, the Haida delegation will walk into the museum's storage rooms to begin wrapping their ancestors' bones taken from mortuary totem poles and graves spread throughout the Queen Charlotte Islands, the dagger-shaped archipelago off the coast of British Columbia.

After being carried in crates back to the Queen Charlottes, the bones are to be swathed in traditional button blankets and cedar mats, placed into newly built cedar boxes and buried in the cemeteries of Skidegate and Old Masset, the island chain's primary communities.

Similar scenes likely will follow in the years ahead. The Haida, who made a similar collection of more than 200 ancestral remains from the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa a few years ago, are leaders in the North American repatriation movement.

They are now turning their focus to Chicago's Field Museum, where they say 131 Haida remains are housed. Museums in Europe likely will receive similar attention.

"We are happy that [the remains] are finally coming home. We are mad that they have been taken in the first place. . . . we are sad that they have been away from their traditional homes for so long and are being held in these undignified metal drawers," says a Haida statement released yesterday.

A century ago, when anthropologists and amateur adventurers were gathering bones for museum collections, they were violating a tenet of native faith: The souls of the dead would not rest in peace if their bones are not left in their homeland. Explorers and museum curators tended to pooh-pooh that belief, countering with the scientific argument that they were saving the physical history of another race by removing specimens that would otherwise erode in the West Coast's damp climate.

Even today, some scientists maintain that the skeletons are important for research, in that they hold vital human DNA history that could show ancient migration patterns and perhaps shed light on the incidence of diseases in the past and how they were passed on.

But Vince Collison, a 40-year-old Haida who has been a leader in the effort to bring back the ancestors, blinked and returned a blank look when that argument was mentioned. He is one of the few who has seen the hundreds of human bones in the museum's storeroom where they have been waiting for more than a century. He said his first glimpse of all the skeletons left him horrified.

"It was emotionally devastating," he said. "For us, the museums don't need them. They've been wandering spirits that we are now bringing home."

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