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Stories from the Indigenous Internship Program: Meeting Gayax̲ala

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.


Meeting Gayax̲ala

By Kala Hunt (Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw)

Museums hold power. They hold the power of telling stories about the pieces they bring into the collection. They hold the ability to share or withhold access to the pieces that they now own.  They hold the platform on which to speak for Indigenous peoples or to speak with us. Something I am interested in about the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) is its commitment to engagement with Indigenous communities. Unfortunately, this is not a common practice within museums, as many continue to reflect colonial histories and realities.

My Uncle Robert Scow got married this spring to his long-time love, Sher Jacobs, on Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish) territory in North Vancouver, BC. His great-grandfather’s thunderbird mask had been acquired by MOA in 1960.  Robert requested a loan of this mask so that it could be danced during the events of their wedding. This wedding was especially beautiful because they incorporated traditional Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw and Squamish wedding ceremonies in order to be married in a sacred way in both of their cultures.

Kala Hunt and the kwa̲nxwa̲mł (thunderbird headdress) of Gayax̲ala in MOA’s conservation lab. Photo by Marlene King

During my time in the Indigenous Internship Program at MOA, I witnessed the process of preparing that thunderbird mask for ceremony. For me as a Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw woman, this was a powerful, emotional and sacred practice to witness. The conservators’ eagerness to support the piece engaging in ceremony was enlightening. They used Japanese tissue paper to stabilize cracks on the thin pieces of hemlock wood that adorn and shape the mask into the thunderbird. They also adjusted the rigging so that the dancer would be comfortable.

To many museum visitors, a piece like the thunderbird mask is merely a beautiful carved artwork. To our people it represents much more. It is a representation and embodiment of familial lineage, history and governance. People require the right to wear certain masks, sing certain songs and dance certain dances. Every family member and many other community members have different roles to step into during ceremony. Ceremonial representations such as masks, blankets, songs and dances are a representation of governance and interconnectedness. As my relative Darren Lagis eloquently relayed to me, “Woven into the fabric of these pieces are rich genealogy, jurisdictions and teachings.”

Darren Lagis, Beverly Lagis’ grandson dancing the kwa̲nxwa̲mł (thunderbird headdress) of Gayax̲ala at Robert Scow and Sher Jacobs wedding. Photo by Susan Rowley

This specific thunderbird mask is named Gayax̲ala, which means “coming down” in the Kwak’wala language. It represents an origin story of the Giga̲lg̲a̲m ‘na̱’mima, or extended family group, from the Gwawa̲’enux̲w nation of the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw peoples. This thunderbird is known as the ga̲lga’lis, which means the first ancestor of the clan. Gayax̲ala lived on the peak of K’we, now known as Mount Stephens. If he was not met in a good way, he made his presence known with his powerful wing span as large as a mountain. When he flapped his wings, it sounded like thunder. To me, this speaks to the essential principle within Indigenous ideologies, ethics and morality of acknowledging and embodying the interconnectedness of life. We as humans are only one part of the animal kingdom and have a duty to act as a humble vessel of protection for where we come from and what sustains us. Gayax̲ala transformed from the supernatural being of the thunderbird to become part of the human realm. The song that is sung while this mask is being danced expresses the teachings of harmony and healing.

Darryll Dawson (great-grandson of Billy Wilson, grandson of Beverly Lagis), dancing the kwa̲nxwa̲mł (thunderbird headdress) of Gayax̲ala at Ryan Nicolson’s potlatch in the Alert Bay bighouse, 2016. Beau Dick is at the left, holding a rattle. Photo by Ryan Dawson

This thunderbird mask was owned by Alex Morgan (Sisax̲olas; 1869 – 1945). As he did not have kids of his own, he bestowed his rights on his sister’s eldest son, Billy Wilson, who became the first to dance the mask in the 1930s or ’40s. My Uncle Robert shared with me that Billy Wilson was a powerful dancer who appeared to embody the supernatural through his movements and connection to the energy of what he was dancing. Billy’s powerful connection, energy, leadership and respect has been passed down through the generations and lives on through his descendants Darryll Dawson and Darren Lagis.

My relative Ryan Nicolson borrowed the mask from MOA in 2016 to use in his potlatch at Alert Bay.  For that ceremony, Darryll was asked to bring the mask to life once again. Now, in 2022, it was powerful for me to be a witness to my relative Darren dancing the same mask of Gayax̲ala at my uncle’s wedding, while his brother Darryll danced beside him. The energy was powerful and radiated through the whole room. The feeling of engaging in ceremony makes me speechless—there is energy that flows through every atom of your body which awakens the mind, body and spirit.

Often museum collections represent a disconnect between Indigenous communities and their sacred belongings. Despite this, the strength of our ceremony is capable of calling our sacred belongings home from museums. I’ts uplifting that staff at MOA are also excited about taking steps to reaffirm the connection of collections to community.  

Banner image: Kwa̲nxwa̲mł of Gayax̲ala (object number: A4500), in the conservation lab at MOA. This headdress was carved by Herbert Johnson sometime before 1936; repairs to the horn and wing were made by Beau Dick in 2016. Photo by Kala Hunt.