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Stories from the Indigenous Internship Program: Our Ancestors Are Teaching Us About Ourselves Again

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.

Our Ancestors Are Teaching Us About Ourselves Again

By Gudangee Xahl Kil Amelia Rea (Haida)

Jaa! Gudangee Xahl Kil hinuu dii kya’aang. Amelia hinuu dii kya’aang asan. Dii xaadaagang. Tsiits Gid’aans sduu dii jingaagang. Xaadaa Gwaay sduu dii isgaagang. MOA indigenous internship ahl hlanguulang.

Hello, my name is Gudangee Xahl Kil. My name is also Amelia. I am Haida from Old Massett, Haida Gwaii. I am an Indigenous intern here at the Museum of Anthropology.

Skil Jaadee White and Lois Rullin, at the Haida community visit to MOA hosted by Amelia, study a spruce-root hat woven by Isabella Edenshaw and painted by Charles Edenshaw. Photo by Amelia Rea

 My work in museums started before I was born. My mom, Lucy Bell, started the Haida Repatriation Committee after learning of our ancestral remains stored in museums; she was then an intern in a program similar to the one I’m in now. Following the lead of my mom, aunties, uncles, and elders, I have spent much of my life in museums, in ceremony, language and museum conferences, or across the kitchen table with elders and cultural bearers. This has instilled in me a strong passion and deep love for my Haida culture, language, community, and storytelling. Since the age of two, I’ve had a part to play in bringing home over five hundred of our ancestral remains back to Haida Gwaii. My mom has told me stories of her finding me playing “repatriation” with my Barbie dolls, and the Repatriation Committee coined my nickname, “Repatriation Baby.” Elders would push my stroller through museum storage rooms or hold my hand as they told me about our ancestors and spoke to me in our language. I will cherish this time with them forever.

Amelia (in the stroller) with the Haida Repatriation Committee at the Embassy of Canada in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of the Haida Repatriation Committee

During my time here at MOA, I learnt of about thirty reels of audio recordings that were brought here for cleaning and digitizing. These recordings were made in the 1970s and contain Haida language, stories, and songs. The reels likely haven’t been listened to since the 1980s. They are very, very moldy because they had been stored in a basement. I spent time in the conservation lab learning how to clean the mold off them. Who knew cleaning moldy reels was so fun and satisfying? I enjoyed this process more than I anticipated. I also learnt to digitize the tapes. This process takes time and patience. While the tapes are not in the Haida language dialect I am learning, not totally being able to understand them hasn’t bothered me at all. Knowing these tapes will soon be accessible to my Haida community makes me excited and feels rewarding. Museums house so many audio tapes that contain precious language resources. Museums too can play a role in Indigenous language revitalization.

Amelia talks about a button blanket (made by Carrie Weir) during the virtual Haida community visit. Screenshot taken by Vince Collison, one of the participants in the virtual visit.

 There are an estimated 15,000 Haida treasures scattered around the world, with 1,938 here at MOA. The Haida collection at MOA includes both historical and contemporary works. I knew when I started this internship that I wanted to bring my community to be with the belongings here. Over two days I hosted a little over thirty Haidas both on site and virtually. This was MOA’s first virtual visit to Haida Gwaii! I’m excited that they can now offer this to other communities. I worked with my community to select thirty belongings from the collection to spend time with, which I then took out of storage and prepared them for the visit. Bentwood boxes, feast bowls, spruce root and cedar-bark baskets and hats, masks, frontlets, tools, clubs, and jewelry. I did my best to select a variety of treasures. The community visits were full of magic, inspiration, and learning. I’m grateful and proud to have brought my people here and I hope this strengthens our relationship with the Museum of Anthropology.

Amelia adds a reel onto the reel machine so the reel can be cleaned of mold. Photo by Amelia Rea.

When my mom was young, her naanii (grandmother) would use an ice-cream bucket as a drum and paper-bag masks to teach her grandkids how to Haida dance. Almost all evidence of Haida material culture was stored in museums. By the time I came around, my family had drums to sing to me with and masks for me to dance. This big reawakening of our culture began, and I know that the historical belongings stored in museums had a part to play in this. Our ancestors speak to us through their belongings. Ask them what you need to know and they will show you. Our ancestors are teaching us about ourselves again.

Amelia in the collection storage room at the Burke Museum visiting as a recipient of the Connections to Culture grant from the Bill Holm Centre. Seattle, Washington, 2022. Photo by Lucy Bell

It is vital that Indigenous people have access to our belongings and resources in museums.  It is equally essential for us to have a say in how our belongings are cared for. There is an opportunity for museums to work with Indigenous people in a good way and to make things right. As the current caretakers of our belongings, museums have a responsibility to Indigenous people. Museums can walk forward with Indigenous people on a foundation of telling the truth and acknowledging our history, building co-operation, and what Haida people say, Yahgudang: respect.

I hear a call from my kuniisii, my ancestors, to be with their treasures. To hold them, care for them, be a watchman for them, sing to them, breathe life back into them. It is out of a deep love for my people, Haida Gwaii, and my ancestors that I continue my journey in museums. Haw’aa to my mom for leading me on this path. Haw’aa to my ancestors for keeping me on it.