Just because a First Nations cultural object is in the collection of the Royal BC Museum does not mean that its living connections to First Nations people are severed or void. In fact, museum objects represent these connections. This was clearly demonstrated at a University of Victoria convocation on June 8, 2015, when Joye Walkus from the Kwakwaka’wakw community of Fort Rupert graduated with a Bachelor of Education wearing a beautiful Chilkat blanket that had belonged to her grandfather Chief Henry Abel Bell and is now part of the Royal BC Museum’s collection. In an interview with CBC’s All Points West, Walkus explained that, “I want[ed] my grandfather’s memory, spirit, him, to be there . . . and this blanket was the biggest representation that I could think of.” The blanket brought Chief Bell’s presence to the ceremony, she said, “He was there today. His heart would be very proud.”
Despite its age (the family says it is 300 years old), the blanket is in good condition. Clearly it was highly valued and well taken care of over the years as it passed down through generations of the Bell family, with some repair and reinforcing having been done in the past to keep it wearable. Now it is the museum’s job to ensure that the blanket is properly cared for and we take this custodial responsibility seriously.
Preservation; however, does not necessarily equate to restrictions on access and use. We must also support the links between cultural objects in the museum and the First Nations communities they come from. We welcome visits by First Nations people, artists, researchers and others who wish to see objects in our exhibits and storage. And, with the support of our conservators and executive, we are able to loan objects, in certain cases. In fact, this was not the first time that this Chilkat blanket was used by the family since the museum purchased it from Chief Bell in 1975. In 1988 it was loaned out for an event in Campbell River.
The Bell family are Kwakwaka’wakw people from the central coast who inherited the right to wear Chilkat blankets, along with other chiefly privileges, from their ancestor, Mary Ebbetts Hunt (Anisalaga), a high-ranking Tlingit woman from Alaska who married Robert Hunt, an English employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Mr and Mrs Hunt moved with their family to Fort Rupert in Kwagu’ł territory and became part of that community. Their son, George Hunt, worked with the anthropologist Franz Boas and created an extensive, much cited and highly-significant compilation of ethnological documentation about Kwakwaka’wakw culture. Today, both old and new Chilkat blankets are worn by Anisalaga’s descendants. In the same graduation ceremony, for example, another descendant of Anisalaga wore a Chilkat blanket from a Kwakwaka’wakw family’s collection.
Joye Walkus graduated with a Bachelor of Education in Indigenous Language Revitalization. As Jack Knox pointed out in his Times Colonist article about the event, “One woman’s fight to save a language, not just a blanket,” Joye’s mother Doreen Walkus is a fluent Kwak’wala speaker who taught the Kwak’wala segment of the UVIC program at Port Hardy. The importance of indigenous languages and the work of language champions such as Doreen Walkus – and now her daughter, Joye – in revitalizing those languages, is the subject of our award-winning exhibition, Our Living Languages: First Peoples’ Voices in British Columbia, done in partnership with the First Peoples’ Cultural Council. It is therefore appropriate that an object from the Royal BC Museum was in some way part of the convocation of the first cohort of graduates in Indigenous Language Revitalization at UVIC. For Joye Walkus, wearing the Chilkat blanket demonstrated the presence of her ancestor, Chief Henry Abel Bell, at the event. For the Royal BC Museum, it demonstrated the profound connections between a tangible treasure of family regalia and the intangible treasure that is indigenous language.