For Haida, wooden chest holds the promise of reunion with Indigenous treasures

Marsha Lederman, The Globe and Mail
July 8, 2017

"After more than a century away from home, the mountain goat moon chest was allowed to live again. Liberated from museum storage in a foreign land, the iconic chest was wheeled out to the middle of a packed rec centre gym in Skidegate, B.C., on remote Haida Gwaii, as hundreds watched. The crowds were there for a historic potlatch when the surprise guest star stole the show. No protective glass, no roped-off borders – just a dolly separating the chest from the old-growth wood floor where the Haida play basketball. A treasure itself, the box was packed with more: 25 copper shields, important symbols of wealth in Haida culture, which were handed out that Easter weekend in a powerful ceremony.

“It was absolutely magical and transformative,” says Nika Collison, who belongs to the Ts’aahl clan of the Haida Nation. “The chest itself wasn’t only transformed from being in a basement for 100 years to being back in use, it was transformed into being everything it always was. And that transformed all of us in the room.”

It was Ms. Collison’s idea, as co-chair of the Haida Repatriation Committee, to bring the chest home to Haida Gwaii, a group of islands off the Northern British Columbia coast. And it was her smarts, passion and connections that helped to broker an extraordinary loan from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), which owns the item. She proposed it as a creative repatriation: The chest would not only be displayed at the Haida Gwaii Museum at Kay Llnagaay, where it is now, but first, the pioneering agreement would allow Guujaaw, the Haida artist, activist and leader, to use it in a potlatch marking his transition to Gidansda, hereditary chief of Skedans.

That AMNH agreed to her proposal was “huge,” Ms. Collison says. “This has my colleagues’ jaws dropping around the world.”"

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