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National Indigenous History Month: Indigenous Perspectives

In honour of National Indigenous History Month, we’re sharing excerpts from the award-winning MOA publication, Where the Power Is: Indigenous Perspectives on Northwest Coast Art, by Karen Duffek, Bill McLennan, and Jordan Wilson. Dozens of Indigenous artists and community members visited MOA to engage with objects and belongings and learn from the hands of their ancestors. This book is a vivid and powerful document of Indigenous experiences of reconnection, reclamation, and return.

7idansuu—James M. Hart
(Haida) at MOA, 2018.
Photo by Alina Ilyasova.

7idansuu—James M. Hart

“When I get a chance to study some of the old greats
done by ancestors that knew what they were
doing and what they were talking about, it gives
me a chance to fill up my soul and keep going. It
gives me a sense of the richness of where it all
comes from. Where it all comes from is the supernatural
times, when we understood the world in
another way.”

“I want to go back to the feelings that they brought forward in their work. They were dealing with nature firsthand, and everything comes from that. It comes from that feeling, that power, that energy. It makes the supernatural more real. You put your mind there and youʼre in there with the supernatural: theyʼre right there beside you, theyʼre part of your life. Thatʼs the power I want—to get back to that.”

Lyle Wilson (Haisla) at MOA, 2019. Photo by Alina Ilyasova.

Lyle Wilson (Haisla)

“Sunna-chead, the hereditary Haisla name of the exstookoya hey-mus, has been passed down through the generations to John Bolton; John Wilson, Sr.; and Cyril Grant, Jr., the current hey-mus. John Wilson, Sr., was my qwalth-ap (uncle); when he expressed his wish to pass on to the younger generation of Gah-u-ca-loot (Haisla
people) whatever traditional culture he knew, I
gave him three carvings: a spoon, a chiefʼs staff,
and a replica of this great old exstookoya geega-
mee that is now at MOA. Todayʼs Haisla are slowly taking up the challenge of incorporating traditional cultural practices into their contemporary lives. I hope my qwalth-apʼs successor will use the gee-ga-mee in a newly created exstookoya dance, and so fulfill his predecessorʼs wishes.”

Snxakila—Clyde Tallio (Nuxalk)

Snxakila—Clyde Tallio (Nuxalk) at MOA
in 2019, visiting a Nuxalk It7Nuxalkmc
(Sisawk society headdress).

“Iʼve gone around with others looking at
different museums, and weʼve now found well
over a thousand Nuxalk pieces: masks and ceremonial items, rattles, regalia, headdresses. We are not connected back to those original pieces. Most of our artists arenʼt able to see them or travel around the world to go to look at them and hold them. So, we have mixed feelings about that.

We want the museum guests that come to see them to leave with a little bit of understanding that these are not just art. In our language we donʼt even have a word for art.”

Nakkita Trimble (Nisgaʼa)

Nathan Wilson (Haisla) and Nakkita Trimble
(Nisgaʼa) at MOA in 2018, showing their
daughter a Nisgaʼa or Tsʼmsyen owl mask.

“We call these objects “artwork” today, but this
is a written language. Thereʼs a history and a
story behind the eleven faces: every element tells another part of the story. That story is tied to the land and to all the people who belong to that matrilineal line.

As Indigenous people we have to travel far and wide to look at our family heirlooms. When youʼre lucky enough to find your family membersʼ belongings in a collection, itʼs an
emotional experience. One day these objects need to return home. They are our ancestors.”

Tsēmā Igharas (Tahltan) examines the sheath
with neck strap, intended to keep a warriorʼs
iron dagger at the ready, MOA, 2018.

Tsēmā Igharas (Tahltan)

“When I go see our pieces in museums, I just exist
with the object. I do measurements, I create a
methodology to reproduce it, and I see how it was
made, the size of beads and the colours—things
you can see in person that you couldnʼt really
see in an image. My ambition is to make these
Tahltan objects again and to continue our practice,
to share it, to have those objects as placeholders
for when we get our ancestorsʼ objects back and a
proper place to house them. Itʼs a personal project,
having these patterns go back into community,
and saying, ‘Letʼs use these shapes again, letʼs
define what a Tahltan art style is.’ By making
them, we will remember our practice.”

YaʼYa Heit (Gitxsan) at MOA, 2018.

YaʼYa Heit (Gitxsan), 1957 – 2021

“Iʼm happy to hold this for the picture and send
it off to the current Simadiiks—Calvin Hyzims is
his cowboy name, from Gitwangak. Those guys
would sure be happy to see it. “Halait rattle”—the
chiefs are the Halait, a certain high rank of chief
who has gone through four big-name feasts to
validate himself.

It would be really nice if our ʼKsan Museum
could house these kinds of things. Back in the
1970s, when they expanded ʼKsan from one
longhouse to five or six, it was the centre for all
our villages. Even our allies, our neighbours the
Wetʼsuwetʼen, came and participated with all the
events at ʼKsan. Those chiefs who gathered there
from all the different villages, thatʼs where the
land claims got restarted again. That shows how
valuable ʼKsan was. Anything getting returned
would fill us with such a nice feeling, you know.
To repatriate some things would be a small