For more than 100 years, reports the Globe and Mail, 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.
Last week, 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.
The moment was culturallysignificant, coming after two years of negotiations with the museum on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Last week the Haida delegation began 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.
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.
Vince Collison, a 40-year-old Haida who has been a leader in the effort to bring back the ancestors, 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.”