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Stories from the Indigenous Internship Program: Meeting a Basket

The Indigenous Internship Program at MOA was developed by six Indigenous partners: the Musqueam Indian Band, the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, the Haida Gwaii Museum, the U’mista Cultural Society, the Nlaka’pamux Nation, the Coqualeetza Cultural Society, and the Museum of Anthropology at UBC. The program provides training opportunities for Indigenous people working in museums or Indigenous people who would like to do this kind of work. Funding for the Indigenous Internship Program is provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Our latest series of MOA Stories feature the fascinating research conducted by members of the Fall 2021 cohort during their internship.

Meeting a Basket

By Kelsey Sparrow (Musqueam/Anishnaabe)

During my first week in the Indigenous Internship Program at the Museum of Anthropology, our group of interns was introduced to the conservation lab and asked if we wanted to see a special piece of basketry. The basket had been found this past summer in the mud banks on the mouth of the Fraser River, at my community on the Musqueam reserve. I had just heard about this basket recently, as living off reserve I was late to the gossip. I was really eager to have the chance to see it, so when MOA Conservator Mauray Toutloff asked if I wanted to hold it, I was excited for the opportunity.

Kelsey holding a basket at MOA. Photo by Heidi Swierenga.

Mauray brought the basket out of its temporary home in the fridge in the lab, where it was sitting in a water bath to preserve its structure and to desalinate. It took my breath away. I had heard the basket being spoken about, but had never seen a picture of it, and I was not expecting this beautiful, nearly intact, cedar-root basket. It has a wide, rounded, rectangular shape with a tapered base. The base and a portion of the lip had become detached while it was being dug up, but are still present. It appears that there could be some triangular zigzag designs woven into the outside of the basket with another type of bark, but the fibres are still too embedded with dark silt to see properly. The weave was so fine, reminding me of very old wet-site fragments that had been found on Musqueam territory and dated up to 4,000 years ago. Lifting the basket out of the water and holding it in my hands, I could feel how sturdy the structure still is despite the fragility of the old waterlogged fibres holding it together. Later, when the Indigenous Internship Program Coordinator Sarah Holland asked me how it felt to hold the basket, I said, “There are no words.” I told her that I actually teared up a bit while holding it. Reflecting back now, I would say it felt joyful, it felt significant, and it felt like meeting someone.

Later in my internship, I helped clean and pack the basket with wet blotters to keep it damp so that we could bring it to Musqueam 101, a speaker series held on the reserve. This community visit with the basket was the first 101 session to be held in person since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, so it felt like a momentous occasion for many reasons. As people started trickling in and dinner was served, they took the time to reconnect and catch up. Many community members congratulated MOA Curator Sue Rowley, a mentor in this program, as her new position as MOA Director had just been announced publicly earlier that day. A cousin of mine who knew about my internship kept yelling at me, “WHAT’S THE TEA, KELSEY?” (i.e., what’s the scoop?), wanting to know the results of the carbon dating on the basket. I did not have the answer at the time, but it was later revealed by the Musqueam archeologist, Aviva Finkelstein, to have been made 400 to 80 years ago.

Kelsey cleaning basket at MOA. Photo by Heidi Swierenga.

Cyler Sparrow, the community member who had found the basket, recounted his story of finding it and digging it up. He stated that his only intentions for that day had been to “get oiled up and shirtless and get his tan on,” and it had been complete happenstance that he came across this basket. He saw something poking out of the mud on the riverbanks and proceeded to dig it out, and then brought it to his grandmother Debra Sparrow’s home. After Cyler told his story, community member Howard Grant made a point to stand up Cyler and commend him as a young person for taking an interest and knowing the importance of his find, which ended up being a wonderful gift to our community. When it came time to unwrap the basket, I could feel everyone’s excitement as they gathered around the table to meet it—the same anticipation I had felt at MOA. Sharing a meal, laughter and visiting reminded me again that things like this basket are more than “objects,” and even more than belongings. They feel like relatives that have their own spirit and can bring us together and teach us.