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Stories from the Indigenous Internship Program: Land Rights, Activism and Museums

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 Summer 2022 cohort during their internship.

Land Rights, Activism and Museums

By Daniel Pickering (Lil’wat)

The Lil’wat Nation has been active in fighting for land rights for many generations. My family and community have taken direct action historically and in the present day to resist oppressive legislation and assert Indigenous title to the land.

Indian Rights Association Delegation to Ottawa. Standing at the far right is my great-great-grandfather, Chief William Pascal, May, 1916. Photo courtesy Canadian Museum of Civilization, Ottawa (negative no. 36002).

During my time in the Indigenous Internship Program based at the Museum of Anthropology (MOA), I became interested in finding out how Indigenous activism is reflected in museum collections. Materials generated by Indigenous activism can include handmade signs, documentary film, photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, archival materials, t-shirts, and flyers. Many of these items are a challenge to preserve because they are created for a temporary purpose. The effort of acquiring and caring for these materials is important nonetheless, because it can help further awareness among wider audiences and future generations about the issues that often continue to be protested. In my research, I found examples of archival materials that document my family’s and community’s involvement in direct action.

The Lil’wat Nation, also referred to as the Lower Lillooet, Mount Currie, or Pemberton Band, is one of the St’át’imc Nations residing in the Pemberton Valley of southwestern British Columbia. Sixteen St’át’imc Chiefs came together in 1911 to sign the Lillooet Declaration, a document in which they claimed sovereign rights to their lands:

We are aware the B.C. government claims our Country, like all other Indian territories in B.C.; but we deny their right to it. We never gave it nor sold it to them. They certainly never got the title to the Country from us, neither by agreement nor conquest, and none other than us could have any right to give them title.

(excerpt from “Declaration of the Lillooet Tribe,” Spences Bridge B.C., May 10, 1911.
The 1990 Lillooet Lake Road blockade, where members of the Mt. Currie Indian band blocked the road in protest over on-going native land claims. The RCMP served a court injunction to clear the road and arrested 63 protestors. Photo by David Buzzard Photography

A few years after this powerful declaration was made, my great-great-grandfather Chief William Pascal was part of a group of leaders who travelled to Ottawa in 1916 and again in 1927 to dispute the lack of federal acknowledgement of Indigenous sovereignty and land rights, including those of the St’át’imc Nations. Under its Indian Act legislation, the Canadian government was historically able to restrict the movements of First Nations peoples, build the reserve system, and make it illegal for First Nations peoples to pay lawyers to formally dispute land claims. Now when I look at the photo of Chief William Pascal travelling across the country to confront such oppressive legislation, I think about how many of these issues are still prevalent today.

Chief Pascal’s determination was carried forward by the generations that followed, as the Lil’wat Nation has continued to take direct action. In 1990 the community held a blockade on the Duffy Lake Road in Mount Currie, B.C. to bring attention to resource extraction from logging companies and to stand in solidarity with the Mohawk Nation during the Oka Crisis in Quebec. My grandmother, “Attsie” Theresa Pascal, along with many others, was arrested during the blockade, which lasted over 100 days. Photos and documentation of protests such as these reminds us all of the long history of direct action, and can uplift the messages of Indigenous activists today. Through museum and exhibit work, protest materials from Indigenous activists asserting their presence on the land can be more widely shared in the community and with the wider public.

My grandmother, “Attsie” Theresa Pascal, said, “I’m totally for the Lil’wat people and our sovereign rights to everything that is within our valley and territory…We’ve been radical, trying to get all our rights.” She was arrested while protesting on the Duffy Lake Road, 1990. Photo courtesy my family

An exciting example of a museum representing recent Indigenous activism is the exhibit Acts of Resistance at the Museum of Vancouver (MOV, 2020-2021). The MOV showcased the banners that Indigenous artist-activists displayed while hanging in harnesses under the Second Narrows Bridge to protest the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion project.  Protest materials like those banners and signs can be difficult to preserve because they are made for an immediate purpose rather than for long-term display. Paint may be hastily applied, which can lead to peeling, and materials like boards or paper used to make the signs are  prone to degradation over time. After the banners from the Trans Mountain protest were taken down from the bridge, for example, they were kept in plastic bags within police custody for a year before being released. Under these conditions paint can begin to crack and deterioration can set in. While it can be difficult to preserve such materials, I believe it is important to do so because they give important insight into the history of activism and the issues Indigenous people have faced in the past and continue to face today.  Dr. Sharon Fortney, Curator of Indigenous Collections and Engagement at the MOV, had this to say about the exhibit:

There’s a duty for the museum to actually make an effort to collect protest art and items that speak to contemporary issues for Indigenous people. We’re trying to show vibrant, thriving cultures, not people stuck in the past or someone else’s idea of what it is to be Indigenous.”

(Neigh, Scott. “Museums, Indigenous protest art, and the Trans Mountain Pipeline.” Talking Radical Radio, March 2020.)

Researching my family and community’s activism has inspired me to look deeper into what has been preserved from recent and historical protests in Canada. I am excited to continue researching Indigenous activism and to be a part of building greater awareness of Indigenous issues through museum and exhibition spaces.   

Banner image: Lil’wat protestors at the Duffy Lake Road Blockade, 1990. Photo by David Buzzard.