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Stories from the Indigenous Internship Program: Following Fish Weirs + Connecting Roots Along the Way

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 Spring 2023 cohort during their internship.

Following Fish Weirs & Connecting Roots Along the Way

By Tannis Wilson (Henaksiala/Haisla)

Hi everyone, my name is Tannis Wilson. I am Henaksiala and Haisla. I was part of the Indigenous Internship Program (IIP) at the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) this year.

Me digging up the past, 2020. Photo by a crew member.

A couple of years ago a picture was shared on social media of my great-great-grandfather’s chair called, “The Chief’s Chair.” I made it a goal to see this chair in person. But I wasn’t sure if its home was MOA or if it was there on loan. The story of how I got to meet that chair starts a few years earlier. In 2019, I got an internship with Kleanza Consulting, where for three weeks I assisted with the retrieval, intake and care of fish weirs* made from wooden stakes that date back 150 to almost 3000 years. They are from an intertidal zone at the north side of Minette Bay, near Kitamaat village on BC’s north coast. The following summer I heard from my uncle Chris that the next group of fish weirs was going to be excavated the following week. I talked my way onto the crew and kind of stayed with the fish weirs ever since.

After I helped take care of them for three years, the weirs were ready for their next step—and so was I. We were going to send them to the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) in Ottawa for preservation in polyethylene glycol (PEG). Haisla’s Environmental Manager, Candice Wilson, asked CCI if they had any Indigenous interns to help work on the project and learn the process of wet-site conservation. By the next meeting, CCI sent us a link to MOA’s Indigenous Internship Program. Applications were filled out, references were checked, and I got an interview. Two weeks later, I received the call that I got one of four spots. Now, as part of my new internship, I would be able to follow the fish weirs to CCI. Yay for me!!

Group photo with the Chief’s Chair. Photo by Cait Pilon.

Once I got to MOA, I started to research Henaksiala and Haisla belongings and where they live. I learned about the Reciprocal Research Network (RRN), a website that has 29 institutions and their collections of Northwest Coast Indigenous objects and belongings online. This is when I found out that the Chief’s Chair’s home is at MOA, and that the museum has a space for communities to come visit with belongings. So, I started making a list of art and belongings at MOA that were made by my family or are connected to my territory. My hope was that if the stars lined up, we could have a family visit. 

My niece and two nephews stay with a foster family in Vancouver. They have gone to Kitamaat for visits but have never been to our Henaksiala territories: Kemano and Kitlope. These places were a big part of my childhood, and I want my niece and nephews to have that connection, too. Being out on my territory has helped ground me. I decided I would use maps and aerial photos I found in archives, as well as the art and belongings, to connect the kids to their family line, learn about feast names, and understand how certain names are connected to certain watersheds. 

The whistle we all wanted to try. Photo by S.E. Holland.

Four weeks into my MOA internship, everything started lining up. A date was set for a visit, and my uncle would join in from Kitamaat on Zoom. I helped staff pull belongings from storage and display cases and set up the visiting room.  During the set up I read a description of one of the belongings from my territory that had caught my attention: it is a carved rock with a face on it and a place to hold your hands. It turned out to be a piledriver for fish weirs from Kitamaat and is most likely associated with the fish weirs I’ve been caring for—an amazing connection!

The day of the visit came, and I was so excited. We first had a little snack and a quick chat, and then we all headed to the visiting room. Cait Pilon, the Collections Coordinator, and Zoe Tokarchuk, the Collections Intern, were there to help record the visit and assist with questions or with handling the belongings. For each artist’s name, I had listed where their watershed was, who had the name before them, and a map to show the location. The kids soaked up all the knowledge they could. I asked them what their favourite belongings were, and they said, “All of us want to try the whistles out.”

Admiring the jewellery. Photo by Cait Pilon.

We all also loved the carved jewellery by Uncle Derek and Uncle Barry, and the carved raven mask with abalone by Uncle Hank. Alyse and Ajsa loved the Chief’s Chair. Alyse asked if they could sit in it, I told her it was about 150 years old so they couldn’t! Ajsa and Archer loved Nathan’s shark mask. Sarah Holland, our IIP coordinator, came down and gave Chelsea, the foster mom, information on MOA’s Native Youth Program, so that in the future if the kids wanted to explore the museum life, they now know how they can. We then walked to the Haisla section of the museum to have a look at everything on display there. By this point we loved too many belonging to list! We were amazed by everything.

Now that I’ve shown my niece and nephews the belongings connected to our family, our territory, and the names that are connected to certain watersheds, my next goal is to get them to our Henaksiala territory, to deepen their roots. I have followed the fish weirs and they have led me to strengthen my roots along the way.  I am grateful to have learned about wet-site conservation at MOA and to learn more at CCI this fall. It means that I can care for the fish weirs and make sure that future generations in my family and community can connect with them to strengthen their roots, too.

Chief’s Chair. MOA Collections A2193 a-b. Haisla. Infrared photo by Bill McLennan.

*A fishing weir or fish weir is an obstruction placed in tidal waters, or wholly or partially across a river, to direct the passage of, or trap, fish.