Sunday, 2 October 2016

Material culture, politics, museums, and a Royal visit to Haida Gwaii

Photograph: Richard Lam, Vancouver Sun (reposted from The Province).

I greatly admire the respectful and diplomatic way in which the Haida nation recently hosted the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. In accordance with ancient Haida protocol, Haida people showed tremendous respect to their honoured guests. Haida teams made facilities secure, prepared activities and decorations, registered and transported local guests, and paddled the royal couple to the beach at Kaay Llnagaay, the Haida Heritage Centre, where they were welcomed ashore by Chief Gaahlaay and Haida Nation president Peter Lantin. Their guests were treated to Haida song and dance, a local food feast, and given mantles woven in Naaxiin style and trimmed with sea otter fur. They were also given a copper, a symbol of family honour and wealth, made by Gwaliga Hart. Everywhere that day there was regalia with clan crests, Haida hats, masks, material symbols of Haida heritage and identity.

There were also T-shirts. Many of those button blankets were worn over bright blue T-shirts with the slogan NO LNG, a reference to Haida protests over pipelines and tankers threatening pristine marine environments. Lisa Hageman, who wove the exquisite Naaxiin mantles given to the Duke and Duchess, emphasized the Haida role as guardians of lands, forests and waters in her design of the mantles by adding blue and green to the traditional pattern ‘All Our Ancestors.’ Such quiet but visible and determined articulation of principles and issues has a special power in situations when the Crown is represented in Aboriginal communities. All of these statements were made respectfully in the presence of high-ranking guests within the unceded territory of Haida Gwaii. Perhaps the most powerful challenge made was the gift of the copper, which invites reflection on the honour of the family bearing it.

Museums don’t often collect T-shirts with Indigenous protest slogans. They have collected coppers, masks, button blankets, woven hats, but seldom make the connection between these and the T-shirts. Culture and identity are tied to environment. Environmental degradation through oil spills and LNG leaks and fracking means for peoples like the Haida a loss not only of food but of time spent on the land and then a loss of stories, of knowledge, of language, of how to make and use cultural items: a dramatic erosion of identity and culture. Museums need to acknowledge and support such links between contemporary political protest and heritage items in collections and in communities.

I offer tremendous respect to the matriarchs, hereditary chiefs, leaders, artists and many others who facilitated this extraordinary event. It was wonderful to see so many people in the photographs with whom Pitt Rivers Museum staff have been able to work over the years. We look forward to continuing to work together.

Council of the Haida Nation posts on the visit are at:

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