Friday, 9 June 2017

The Great Box goes home

Recently, I attended a potlatch on Haida Gwaii in which a respected activist, artist and political leader stepped into the clan chieftainship of the Ravens of Skedans. Although I have worked with Haida people since 1998 and made many trips to Haida Gwaii, I had never before had the opportunity of attending a potlatch. And while anthropology lecturers at Oxford have taught about “the potlatch” for over a century, based on anthropological literature, none had ever been invited to attend a potlatch as a witness. So I went to “honor the invitation,” as the Haida say; I went to show respect for the man who has become Chief Gidansta and his family; I went to renew relationships with many Haida people; and I went to see the new version of the Great Box, the Great Box’s child, being used in a potlatch, as it was originally meant to be used.

In anthropological terms, a potlatch is an event involving a change in status or identity: a wedding, a funeral, an adoption, becoming a chief. The host clan invites, feasts and presents gifts to guests, who witness the business conducted and not only provide collective support for it but are also responsible afterwards to witness and affirm the identity of the person(s) at the centre of the business. In my case, I affirm that Guujaaw is now Chief Gidansta, and I was with about a thousand people who saw it done, so it’s true. The host clan’s specific crests are displayed and affirmed, told through stories and dance and song, reminding people which crests belong to that clan. A totem pole, also with the clan’s specific crests, may be carved and raised to commemorate the event. History is re-told in art and dance, and added to.

I had been told that the Great Box’s child would feature in the potlatch in some way. As a curator, I see masterpiece-level Haida art sitting on shelves, held motionless in displays by elaborate supports, or wrapped in tissue paper in acid-free boxes. I’ve learned that when such items are performed by Haida people—old masks brought to the face and danced, ancient hats worn on the head, gambling sticks used to gamble with—something very special happens. This was initially a source of tension (as a curator, aren’t I supposed to keep things physically safe?), but I’ve had excellent Haida teachers, and have learned to treasure these magical moments when long-dormant treasures come to life. Those moments of cultural renewal and continuity are precisely what the 1884 revisions to the Indian Act that made the potlatch illegal, tried to kill. The historic Great Box was removed from Haida Gwaii, along with nearly every other masterpiece-level treasure, during the years of missionisation, assimilation policies, and residential schools. That’s how most of those ancestral treasures that I see sitting on shelves got to Oxford. Those rare, magical moments when items are danced, when they move, when they are lovingly held by Haida people, affirm that although hearts were often broken during those years, Haida culture was not. If it went quiet, like the masks on shelves, it has been woken again and is dancing.

What happens when a long-absent masterpiece comes home? And what, I wondered, would happen when it was used in a potlatch, mending part of the rupture in Haida cultural history that the collection of the historic box, its removal from Haida Gwaii, was part of?

The new box sat in front of the chiefs’ table, beside the podium and near an ancient clan box borrowed from the American Museum of Natural History in New York for the occasion. It was flanked by coppers, witnessing and framing the events, placing this potlatch within an ongoing history of potlatches by the host clan. Front and center in the action, the Great Box’s riveting design was echoed by the designs on the chief’s seat and the banner behind the chief’s table, taken from sibling boxes identified by Gwaai and Jaalen Edenshaw as having been made by the same artist. The meal was served to the chiefs by host clan members who made their way around the box, carrying plates and coffee pots and water jugs. People came up during lulls in the action and visited with chiefs, admired the boxes, took pictures; occasionally someone came and spent a long time going around every side of the box, mesmerized. At the pivotal moment in the ceremony, the new box was used as it was meant to be: as a box of treasures, from which the new chief’s regalia was unpacked by his family as they lovingly dressed him during that moment of transformation.

It was where the historic box was meant to be, if it had not been removed from Haida Gwaii. The new box sat, powerful and beautiful, between chiefs and coppers and dancers, hearing Haida language and song, watching the aunties visit, admiring the excellent pies, smelling seafood. At one point, a toddler being given her Haida name danced to her naming song in front of it, bouncing up and down in a room filled with love and happiness. The Great Box took it all in. There was no hole in the room where it should have been. The Great Box’s child has come home.

The Great Box Project through which the new box was made was funded, in part, by UK research funding, for which I have to monitor the impact of research on the public. Impact is defined as "the demonstrable contributions that excellent social and economic research makes to society and the economy, and its benefits to individuals, organisations and/or nations," which can include "influencing the development of policy, practice or service provision, shaping legislation, altering behaviour," and "capacity building through technical and personal skill development."  

While I don’t have any difficulty with the concept of accounting for the use of public funds, I do wonder how to describe the impact of the Great Box’s return in such terms. Where does “mending ruptures caused by colonial processes” fit in such discourse? How would we measure it? How does bringing such a masterpiece home and using it as it was intended to be used fit into such registers of language? How do we translate the concepts of healing and cultural strength into “benefits to individuals, organisations and/or nations”?

I am struggling to find the right words. Whether I find them or not, my respect goes out to the Ravens of Skedans and to Gidansta and his family for their generous hosting at this most extraordinary feast, and to artists Gwaai and Jaalen Edenshaw for creating such an extraordinary work. Haawa’a, haawa’a, haawa’a.

The new Great Box being admired at the potlatch, March 2017. Photographer: Laura Peers.

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