The remains of 48 people sit in cedar boxes at the front of the Anglican Church in the village of Massett, at the northern end of Canada’s Queen Charlotte Islands. “Maybe we don’t know who these people are,” says the Reverend Lily Bell, “but we know they are our people.”
“Yes,” nods 83-year-old Ethel Jones, seated where she can see the boxes. Nonny (grandmother) Ethel’s life spans perhaps the most dramatic period of cultural change in the thousands of years since the Haida settled on this rainy archipelago.
Nonny Ethel was born during a period of decline. She grew up speaking only Haida, but by the middle of the 20th century, she had seen the language and many traditions all but abandoned. Now, seated among the bones of her ancestors, she wonders if she may be witnessing the return of what was lost.
Until the late 1800s, at least 10,000 Haida lived in large settlements scattered throughout these islands. An abundance of salmon, halibut and shellfish provided the material support for a culture that produced massive cedar houses, intricately carved and painted artifacts, and monumental totem poles that recorded family history and legend. Then smallpox came, killing nine out of ten Haida in the space of a few years. All but two of the villages were emptied. Museum collectors arrived to buy or steal artifacts and pillage graves.
The remains that will be reburied today were returned by Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, where they spent more than one hundred years in boxes and drawers. Another 84 bodies will be interred tomorrow. Other museums have also returned remains, more than 400 so far. More are yet to come. To describe the repatriations, the Haida use the word Yaghudangang, “to pay respect”. It is an important concept in a culture where respect for one’s elders and ancestors is inseparable from self-respect.
For the Haida, the repatriations are part of a much larger cultural and political resurgence. Driven by education, a renaissance in carving and other arts (and a new appreciation for Haida art on the part of outsiders), the movement has been gathering speed since the 1970s.Protests and negotiations in the 1980s led to protected status for much of the Queen Charlotte Islands. The Haida, who never signed a treaty with England or Canada, are still pursuing a legal case against the government, seeking the recognition of full aboriginal title over the archipelago.
And Nonny Ethel, along with other elders, now spends much of her time in the schools, teaching the language to a new generation. “In the old days, we snuck to speak it,” she says. “That’s why I’m in school trying to teach to the younger people. I think it will survive.”
Note that this story aired in two separate parts on NPR’s Day to Day.