Whalers' remains come home to Ahousaht

Eric Plummer, November 19, 2018

Rev. George Kinney took the above photograph of a sacred whalers’ shrine in the 1930s before removing some of its contents. This photo is being published with the approval of the Ahousaht Ha’wiih. (Royal BC Museum photo)

Victoria, BC — 

The remains of at least six men who held critical roles in sustaining Ahousaht society are being returned to the community today after spending decades in storage at the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria.

A group from the First Nation picked up the remains of eight people this morning from the museum’s storage, and plan to reach Ahousaht later today for them to be buried in a graveyard at the Flores Island community. The remnants of six individuals were taken from an Ahousaht whaling shrine in the 1930s, and another two people’s remains that were removed from the north end of Flores Island are also in the collection within the plastic tote container.

After the First Nation was informed of the collection and the museum’s willingness to have the remains repatriated, a cedar box was made by Ahousaht member Wally Thomas for the transportation and burial of the bone remains.

“They’re all mixed together,” said Ahousaht chief Councillor Greg Louie, who is among the group transporting the box. “We’re going to take the whole container and slip it into our cedar box.”

The transportation will be overseen by Ahousaht hereditary chiefs and witwaak, who provide security for the process.

“We’re having some of our ha’wiih with us and our witwaak to travel with us to protect the box and protect everyone else that is participating in the transport,” said Louie.

In the 1930s three skulls and three separate jaw bones were taken from a whaler’s shrine by Rev. George Kinney, a missionary stationed in Bamfield who travelled the west coast of Vancouver Island. Kinney took a photograph of the shrine before removing the bones of the six individuals, and a handwritten note in the RBCM’s records shows his attempt to understand the meaning of the sacred site.

“An Indian who came here to worship would abstain from food and women,” he wrote. “Strip himself, cut himself with charms, expose himself frequently in cold streams near and beseech the ‘great’ spirit to make himself successful in the whale hunt or gambling at lahal. He would beseech the spirits (of the skulls) to aid him.”

The remains were brought to the museum in 1958 following Kinney’s death. Two years later a skull and jaw bone were taken from the north of Flores Island “protruding from the ground” with a nail imbedded in the skull, according to an RBCM file. The remains of these two individuals were brought to the museum in 1969 and added to the Ahousaht whalers shrine remnants. A record of who originally removed them has not surfaced.

As whaling has not been performed in Ahousaht for several generations, Louie sees the repatriation of the remains as a chance for younger members of the First Nation to learn about their heritage.

“They certainly can learn from this, that our ancestors were great whalers,” he said. “The enormity of the presence that these whalers had - the preparation they had, the ceremonies they had to go through to prepare themselves to go out, paddle and hunt, track down, navigate themselves in the water, and then do the kill, for lack of a better word.”

Whaling was a foundation for the economic structure of Ahousaht and other Nuu-chah-nulth communities for thousands of years, providing healthy sustenance for the tribe as well as providing products to sell, trade and barter.

“In essence it was our national bank,” wrote Tom Mexsis Happynook, the head hereditary whaling chief of the Huu-ay-aht First Nations, in The Nuu-chah-nulth Whale Hunt.

In the piece Happynook adds that whaling also helped to preserve cultural practices.

“Whaling strengthened and preserved our spirituality and is clearly illustrated through the discipline that the Nuu-chah-nulth hereditary whaling chiefs exemplified in their months of bathing, praying and fasting in preparation for the hunt,” he wrote. “The whale strengthened the relationships between families because everyone was involved in the processing of the whale, the celebrations, the feasting and the carving of the artifacts that can still be seen today in many museums around the world.”

Possibly the most extensive known collection from a whaling shrine is currently in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Taken from Yuquot over a century ago, this Mowachaht whalers washing house contains 88 carved wooden figures, four carved whales and 16 human skulls.

For years members of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation have hoped to repatriate this sacred link to their heritage. Numerous other pieces remain in museums that Nuu-chah-nulth-aht believe should be returned to their home territory, including a totem pole belonging to the family of Ahousaht Ha’wilth A-in-chut, Shawn Atleo.

“Shawn Atleo has found out in recent years that there is a pole from his family that was taken from Ahousaht. It’s in the Boston Peabody Museum,” said Louie. “There was a repatriation session on Port Alberni yesterday [Nov. 15], and the word that was sent to me was that there are 50 Nuu-chah-nulth remains in a museum in Chicago.” 

The Royal B.C. Museum has the remains of approximately 300 people in its storage, but this is just half of the First Nations remnants it once had in its collection.

“There will be other announcements as other communities are ready to bring their ancestors home,” said RBCM repatriation specialist Lou-ann Neel. “It’s been a really long discussion since the 1970s with our people coming forward and saying, ‘Why are you keeping them there, we want them back’.”