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Stories from the Indigenous Internship Program: iʔ l̓ q̓sapiʔ əck̓łtr̓ar | Weaving through the clues

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 2022 cohort during their internship.

iʔ l̓ q̓sapiʔ əck̓łtr̓ar | Weaving through the clues

By cnúk Jenna Bower (sukʷnaʔqin Okanagan syilx)

Way̓ yʕayʕat swit, iskʷist cnúk uɬ kn tl nk̓mip. Hello everyone, my name is Southern Wind. I come from the sukʷnaʔqin Okanagan syilx Nation, am a member of the Osoyoos Indian Band, and have roots to the Sinixt Arrow Lakes People, a People formerly declared extinct by the Canadian Government in 1956. The Okanagan Nation extends to around 69,000 square kilometers, and the sukʷnaʔqinx (Okanagan People) travelled this territory, occupying it and living in harmony with the plants and animals.

Jenna Bower explaining the traditional use of some baskets. Photo by S.E. Holland

I serve my community as the manager of our Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre. I applied for the Indigenous Internship Program based at the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) because I wanted to learn how to properly document, categorize, care for and manage our belongings and archives.  I also wanted to locate and spend time with my ancestors’ belongings that are held in MOA and in other museums.

It was harder to connect with our belongings than I had hoped. In my first weeks at MOA, I had conflicting feelings, walking through a colonial institution that was built on stolen land and holding stolen property, feeling the belongings’ spirits, longing to be returned home. I was also coming to the realization, though, that I was also feeling frustrated that there was little here from my community for me to discover, connect with, and bring home. I use the word “belongings” and not “artifacts” because they belonged to someone, and they belong to the people of the Nation from whom they were taken, traded, or purchased under conditions of duress. At the same time, too, through my time here at MOA I have witnessed this museum’s efforts towards reconciliation and repatriation and righting the colonial wrongs that museums were built on.

Jenna Bower exploring the gallery of baskets at MOA. Photo by S.E. Holland

While wandering through the gallery, I did find a large section of baskets that are predominately labeled Interior Salish. At first, I was frustrated; why they weren’t labeled with more specific community names? When I tried to research Okanagan baskets, in hopes to identify a few at MOA, I often came across vague texts, such as “Okanagan baskets closely resemble the larger Salish type with imbrication or beading” (Kania & Blaugrund, 2014, p. 232). Through talking with museum staff, I learned that many belongings enter museums with little documentation about their origins. It is an ongoing job for museums and their partners to build up knowledge surrounding such belongings through community engagement. 

This problem of too-general classifications is connected to a larger issue, as the Interior Salish are made up of the Okanagan Syilx, Lillooet, Secwepemc, Nlaka’pamux and Sinixt First Nations, to name a few. Also, many Interior Salish First Nations people don’t know that they are Interior Salish. If you were to ask me before I attended post-secondary school if I was Interior Salish, I would have said, “No, I’m Okanagan.”  I didn’t know that Interior Salish is a broad term like Coast Salish, and that technically, yes I am. When people are confused on what to call us now-a-days, I always respond with, “We’re confused, too”. Terms I could use to describe myself include Indigenous, Interior Salish, First Nations, Native, Aboriginal, Indian, Status Indian, Okanagan, Okanagon, OIB (Osoyoos Indian Band), sukʷnaʔqinx, sqilxʷ and syilx. The last three terms are the only names we gave to ourselves; for the rest, we were told by outsiders, anthropologists or the government that this is how we should identify ourselves.

Drawing showing yamxʷaʔ basket by Sis-hulk (Francis Baptiste), a student at Inkameep Day School, circa 1940 (Courtesy of Osoyoos Museum, 2004,) 1963-113-040.

In my drive to connect with ancestral belongings, I had to search for clues.  For example, in the Okanagan we have three main ways of making traditional baskets. We have p̓inaʔ (birch bark basket), sk̓c̓ic̓aʔwikst yamxʷaʔ (pine needle basket) and yamxʷaʔ (cedar root basket). When it comes to yamxʷaʔ, this is a basket that isn’t commonly made in the Okanagan anymore; identifying such baskets has been a challenge. There are some drawings of yamxʷaʔ basketry patterns made by Okanagan children who attended the Inkameep Day School in the 1930s and 1940s. These drawings are valuable pieces of our history, having been documented by our own people; they prove that we did do this type of basketry.

Drawing showing yamxʷaʔ basket by Sis-hulk (Francis Baptiste), a student at Inkameep Day School, 1942, Courtesy of Osoyoos Museum, 2004, 1967-028-027.

To the Okanagan People our art had to be practical and travel with us or be a part of us; this includes practices like clothing, tattooing, piercings, pictographs and basketry. The art form may seem insignificant to some, but they all hold history, stories and meaning. When women made baskets, they put in the time and labour to add designs, even though the baskets would function without the beautiful imbrications, it was an important addition to tell a story and perhaps connect them to families. Furthering the challenge of identifying the origins of specific baskets, however, is that anthropologists and outsiders collecting baskets almost never recorded the names of the people who made them. As baskets were predominately made by women, I relate this to the erasure of Indian women from being documented in history, as basketry was often viewed by the collectors as more craft than art.  

Basket labeled Interior Salish. Photo by Jenna Bower

While weaving through the clues, broad terms, colonial misidentification, sexism and lack of documentation make it difficult for someone like myself, as I so desperately try to navigate through historical texts and museum databases to connect with my ancestors’ belongings. In visiting with the baskets in the gallery, I try imagining the story and the history that each share. Who made them, and where, and why? Were they used while digging roots or picking berries? Were they stolen as an artifact to be preserved? Were they traded and exchanged with neighbouring First Nations through family networks into other areas? Were they made to be sold as a means of survival to feed the makers and their families? What story are the patterns telling us, or the direction of the weave? Where were the materials gathered; were they traded?

Even though it is challenging in many ways to connect with my community’s belongings in museum collections, I am determined to keep doing this work. I want to reconnect and bring these treasures home for my community to share and learn from. My ancestors recorded our history and beliefs in the things that they created.

It was never just about a basket.