Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Loss of a mentor and great man

I’m very sad to announce the passing of Kainai ceremonial leader and elder, Frank Weasel Head, who has been a strong mentor to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Frank worked with us on the Kainai Photos Project, advising us as a member of the Mookaakin Cultural and Heritage Foundation. He helped Alison Brown and myself to work in a fully collaborative way with Kainai people so that the project served Kainai needs as well as the terms of the UK research council grant funding it—and he helped us to work out how to do that. Andy Blackwater and the late Narcisse Blood also played key roles in that project, ultimately leading to the signing of a Memorandum of Agreement between the Mookaakin Foundation and PRM. Along the way, Frank was always there to support us, teach us, and tease us.

Frank Weasel Head, Terran Kipp Last Gun wearing a replica shirt made by Sylvia
Weasel Head and Frank Weasel Head, and one of the ancestors [PRM 1893.67.2]

A few years later, we had a chance to bring both Frank and Andy to Oxford, and we showed them the Blackfoot shirts in the storage area. We pulled one shirt out of the storage drawer onto a table, and opened the drawer so they could see the others.

They touched the shirts gently in the drawer, feeling down through the layers, and realized how many there were, how old they were, their powerful presence. They fell silent for several minutes: I had never before seen Frank at a loss for words. Then they had a conversation in Blackfoot, and then we had a very interesting conversation about the shirt on the table, which they examined very closely.

The next day, Frank and Andy spoke to the staff and students of the Museum. As he explained his reaction to the shirts in his talk, Frank said: ‘You have five of these. I have never seen even one. My children have never seen one. My grandchildren have never seen one. And what are you going to do about that?’

Out of that moment the Blackfoot Shirts Project was born. Frank led that project in many ways, consulting with people in his community, helping us to establish how to work with Blackfoot sacred protocols and the shirts, encouraging us to attend ceremonies, mentoring us, teasing us ferociously, and saying hard things when needed. He was always there for us when we needed an interview or a quote. His extraordinarily gifted and polished style of speaking—direct, to the point, honest, and powerful—was effective in meetings and in exhibition quotes, and I always admired his ability to get to the point and solve problems.

Along the way, I came to have tremendous respect for Frank. For years, if I needed to speak to him, I had to catch him early in the morning before he left the house for a day’s meetings, committee work, or consulting: in ‘retirement’ he worked tirelessly for his community. I so enjoyed watching him at ceremonies, ensuring that everything was done right, encouraging younger ceremonialists, making sure that hesitant visitors like myself were brought in and had our faces painted for blessing. His arthritis meant that the long flights from Alberta to the UK left him in considerable physical discomfort, but he was always keen to come over and help, to work with staff and students. I am so grateful for that: he helped to teach a generation of museum professionals in the UK about community perspectives on heritage items in collections here. He helped to change museums here. I shall miss him terribly. On behalf of the Pitt Rivers Museum, I would like to express our sincere condolences to his wife Sylvia and to his extended family.

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