A small group of carvings with a fascinating story has been the point of connection for an extended family of dozens of people from various communities in the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and Ontario.
In January 1924, Francis Kermode, Director of the Provincial Museum of Natural History, Charles F. Newcombe and J.L. White, Deputy Provincial Secretary of BC, went to see Mrs Kitty White, an elderly First Nations lady who lived near Sooke. The previous month, Kermode had received a letter from John A. Murray, Justice of the Peace for the Sooke area, saying, “An old Indian woman Mrs Kitty White whom I have known well for 30 years, called upon me today saying that she had in her possession three or four Indian masks which, out of gratitude for favours received from the Government, she would like to give to the Provincial Museum at this time, as a Christmas Present.” Mrs White also had “an Indian box which was the property of her grandfather, second chief of the Indians at Ahateset? near Nootka [probably Ehattesaht, north of Nootka Island] and it is supposed to be about 200 years old.”
The museum’s Annual Report for 1924 says that as a young girl Kitty White had been “stolen away” and taken to a community just north of Port Renfrew. She lost all touch with her family but years later her brother found her and carved a large mask for her and a mask for each of her children. She stored the masks in her great-grandfather’s wooden chest. Anthropologist Erna Gunther interviewed Kitty White in the 1920s and tells this version of Kitty White’s story:
Mrs White is a Nootka [Nuu-chah-nulth] from Exatisit [Ehattesaht], a village just north of Nootka Sound. She was captured by the Songish [Songhees] and belonged to a chief named Stxai’aks. He sold her to Yo’kum, a Klallam from Port Angeles. When she was eight years old the Klallam group at Port Angeles moved to Beecher Bay, taking her along. When Yo’kum’s son married he was given this slave woman by his father, and she lived with him until she married an Englishman. Klallam Ethnography, 1927: 264.
Not so, said Mrs Ida Jones, the wife of the Pacheedaht Chief Queesto (Charles F. Jones). Kitty White was given in exchange by her father, the chief, to end a war between his and another First Nation: “they knew what it meant when the girl was lifted up high like this . . . peace offering – stop the fight – not sold! not slave!” (The Sooke Story: The History and the Heartbeat, 1999).
The favours received from the government that John A. Murray referred to in his letter may have been in the nature of support and social services during a difficult period in Kitty White’s life. In 1902, he wrote to Superintendent of Indian Affairs A.W. Vowell on her behalf, saying that “Mrs White . . . made a complaint against her husband Aaron D. White, of continued unkindness. . . .” (DIA, RG 10, vol. 1343, 1902-04).
Kitty White was known as Kitty Conan before her marriage, but her Nuu-chah-nulth name was Owechemis. The masks that she gave to the museum are versions of traditional Nuu-chah-nulth regalia: a mask with an Eagle’s head on top, a large human face mask with articulated eyes, a frontlet in the characteristic Nuu-chah-nulth form and a pair of Eagle headdresses. Roughly carved and inexpertly painted, they approximate but do not replicate Nuu-chah-nulth artistic conventions. The red and blue geometric designs appear to have been applied over an earlier layer of paint but the surface of the wooden chest is probably original, which supports the story of the collection’s origin.
Owechemis died in 1930 but these are not simply objects of the past: Anthropology Collections Manager Brian Seymour and other staff members ensure that they continue to support family connections and histories in the contemporary world. Owechemis’ descendants regularly visit us to view the Kitty White collection. They come in family groups and spend time looking at the carvings and posing for photographs with them, sharing stories about their common ancestry and discovering new aspects of their own heritage through the agency of these unique and unusual objects that were made for Owechemis by the brother who found her.