This is old news now that in 2008 the Tseycum First Nation in North Saanich managed to repatriate the remains of 55 of their ancestors who had been removed and sold by Harlan I. Smith. What I didn’t realize is in addition to the snippet on The National with Wendy Mesley (the file is incongruously called “brown-bones” – WTF CBC?), there is also an extended uncut video of the ceremony in the Tseycum longhouse. Cora Jacks, who spearheaded the Tseycum repatriation effort and is interviewed here, sadly passed away soon after.
The detailed field notes kept between 1854 and 1910 assisted greatly in tracing the location of the ancestral remains. Museums in the states are required by law to provide information when a nation makes its request. This law called NAGPRA is the Native American Gravesite Protection Repatriation Act and has greatly facilitated the provision of a long list of human remains and sacred objects. (Similar legislation in Canada does not exist.) Historic references show that skulls had been sold for $5 each with similar price tags having been placed on skeletal remains.
Cora had visited New York in 2005 with Vern Jacks Jr. and experienced the deep emotionality of viewing the remains stored in boxes and placed on shelves. The museum had not followed any cultural protocol so that skulls were often separated and Jacks explains the “spiritual restlessness,” which results from this disrespectful treatment. In Chicago Jacks also discovered about 79 sets of remains many of which are probably from this region and most of them were small children who had likely died of smallpox after contact with European settlers. (source).
As the NY Times noted, the Field Museum in Chicago had not yet begun repatriation negotiations with the Tseycum. While the NAGPRA law in the states is very strong when applicable, it clearly does not apply outside American borders so credit to the AMNH for working in good faith with the Tseycum.
But also: Grant – what the heck – is it really necessary to defend Harlan Smith? Maybe as a curator of archaeology it is. I dunno, seems like another relativising moment rather than a chance for an apology or a plain admission that it was wrong, then and now, to steal human remains for profit. But hey, stealing their land was also done in the spirit of the times, so what the heck? Let’s not forget the RBCM itself is built on top of a village site.