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Expanding Horizons: Launching the Indigenous Internship Program

Sarah E. Holland, Indigenous Internship Program Lead. Photo by Alina Ilyasova.

“I’m excited!” intern Melvina Mack said as she grinned at me after a meeting about archive management. Back home in Nuxalk territory there are archival resources—including photographs, recordings and documents—requiring care. Melvina now had a clearer idea of next steps, as well as connections to specialists at MOA eager to provide assistance. In that moment, I saw the first example of the Indigenous Internship Program empowering someone to take on an ambitious project to protect their community’s cultural heritage. And it was only our second week of the inaugural nine-week program.

Six Indigenous community partner organizations—Musqueam Indian Band, Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, Haida Gwaii Museum, U’mista Cultural Society, Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council, and Coqualeeetza Cultural Society—worked with MOA to develop the Indigenous Internship Program. It aims to strengthen Indigenous capacity in museums and to support communities’ self-determined heritage management initiatives. The internships are designed to be flexible in terms of schedule and focus, with training customized to support each intern’s current or future goals. This program is one way MOA is working to build positive, equitable relationships with Indigenous communities, and to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. MOA Senior Conservator Heidi Swierenga and Curator Susan Rowley, with input from the partner organizations and MOA staff, wrote successful grant applications to Canadian Heritage and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The generous funding from these organizations enabled the program to launch this February.

The first internship cohort, left to right: Shoshannah Greene (Haida), Melvina Mack (Nuxalk) and Trevor Isaac (Kwakwaka’wakw), meet with belongings in MOA’s collections. Photo by Sarah E. Holland.

I am honoured that the partner organizations and MOA selected me as the Indigenous Internship Lead. My role is to build a strong foundation for this paradigm-shifting program. My previous position was as Director of the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, British Columbia. There I devoted my time to strengthening Indigenous capacity. I offered my museum skills to serve the goals of that community, which had created a world-class museum, renowned for its leadership in repatriation. During my tenure there we trained the first permanent team of staff, improved collections care and created new learning opportunities that respect and reflect Kwakwaka’wakw values. I have seen first-hand the reciprocal benefits for both Indigenous communities and museums when we come together in equal partnership.

Before COVID-19 turned the world upside down, everything was going really well with the first internship cohort: Shoshannah Greene (Haida), Trevor Isaac (Kwakwaka’wakw) and Melvina Mack (Nuxalk). The weeks before MOA closed in response to the pandemic were busy. At MOA they completed basic training in research and museum databases and received certificates in Museum Care and Handling. They also connected with resources on campus: the First Nations House of Learning, the X̱wi7x̱wa Library, and the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre. Together we visited the Musqueam Cultural Centre and toured the Museum of Vancouver (MOV) with curator Sharon Fortney. We were inspired by the MOV’s powerful exhibitions Haida Now and Acts of Resistance. The interns also had a unique opportunity to attend a two-day seminar on repatriation, organized at UBC in support of the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

A carved wooden mask of a female face with black eyebrows. The mask has long dark hair and a hairband made of woven cedar bark. Its nose and mouth are painted red, and a red tongue is sticking out of its mouth.
Freda Diesing, female mask, 1973, to be featured in Blessed and Well-Dre$$ed. MOA Collection Nb1.720. Photo by Derek Tan.

The interns decided to co-curate a display at MOA titled Blessed and Well-Dre$$ed to honour the integral role of women in First Nations societies. This display celebrates Indigenous women as supernatural life-bringers who sustain and nourish their families and communities through their essential roles in ceremony and everyday life. Research for this project has included examining MOA’s collections, reading books and making phone calls to Aunties. Treasures from each intern’s community have been selected. The display will feature cooking and ceremonial aprons, a rare dowry board, beautiful woven hats and gorgeous silver bracelets. Using selected historical and contemporary portraits of Indigenous women, the interns will emphasize that First Nations cultures are living and dynamic.

COVID-19 has disrupted our lives, but has not deterred the interns. They continue to work remotely. In fact, very remotely, as they have returned home to Alert Bay, Haida Gwaii and Bella Coola. We are all looking forward to announcing the unveiling of Blessed and Well-Dre$$ed later this year.

Designed for Indigenous community members with a demonstrated interest in cultural heritage management, the Indigenous Internship Program is a new internship opportunity at MOA in the areas of Collections Management, Conservation, Library and Archives, Oral History Language Laboratory, and Curatorial. For more information or to apply for the program, please contact Sarah E. Holland, Indigenous Internship Program Lead: 604-822-3618, sarahelizabeth.holland@ubc.ca