We enter the museum and get in line to see our family behind the glass. We are used to this process, this request for familial visiting turned demand. We are no longer Ktunaxa when we reach the front of the line; we have become First Nations public. We tell the staff we are related to the collection, they let us in without charge. “You’re always welcome here,” they say through smiles, the walls reply, “We hope you never leave.” Every visit to the museum begins in this familiar way: smiles, identification, a long staircase and a thick pane of glass between relations. We can hardly speak with our cousins through this glass; can never take them outside to feel the warmth of sun. There is no place where they are allowed to be except under the watchful eye of professionals who know better, those that hold the key, whose language is a patchwork quilt of rules that spell one conclusion. Tread carefully. Your existence is precarious and we are betting against you.
Behind the glass sits ancestor mother. She is cold and so far from home. Her beadwork is precise and knowing. A cradleboard takes months and months to make, a child takes years to raise. A nation takes generations to speak the same tongue heard when the first glacier cracked apart and fled to the ocean. How long does it take to unbind these ties? Somewhere between Canada 150 and the moon.
The museum is split between a permanent and temporary gallery. The permanent gallery shows Ktunaxa as Kootenay—half-naked horse people on the wrong side of the apocalypse. The temporary exhibit tells the tale of our precious language and culture. That which is of the past is permanent. That which is of today is temporary. The museum continues to hedge its bets. One thing to notice in these cold galleries is that the English words that stand proudly beside my relations are riddled with mistakes. The museum has stated to us that it cannot afford to change the labels that describe my nation—Ktunaxa. That is absurd. I can assure you that every PhD is appropriately credited without exception, especially those experts who deal in mischaracterizing my nation as a people of a temporary present, a culture without law, art without land. The longer the mistakes persist, the more permanent they become.
I have family in jail. Some of us have been to prison and some of us never leave, even when the warden says it’s time to go home. In my family, we have seen the thin edge of Canadian justice. There is no home for us that is not claimed by her majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The reserve and the museum are opposite ends of the same black rod of justice, one encased in velvet behind glass and the other upon an arid floodplain waiting for the second coming. No matter the dressing, the Royal BC Museum still serves a cold dish of vanishing Indian.
Leaving the museum is heartbreaking. A terror erupts knowing that I am leaving my relations behind, knowing that they will not feel the sun or be one with the earth again. No matter the hoops of repatriation laid out before us, there is one simple conclusion—they are more valuable to the museum than any relationship they could forge with us today.