May 1, 2007

Tsimshian: Tribe Chiefs Protest Exhibition

During the opening ceremony of the Royal BC Museum’s “Treasures of the Tsimshian” exhibition, Tribal Chiefs have protested the private ownership of their cultural legacy.

During the opening ceremony of the Royal BC Museum’s “Treasures of the Tsimshian” exhibition, Tribal Chiefs have protested the private ownership of their cultural legacy. 

Below is an article written by Alexandra Gill and published by the Globe and Mail:
 

VICTORIA — Old grievances die hard.

That was the lesson to be learned at the Royal BC Museum this weekend [28-29 April 2007], after a gala ceremony to celebrate the opening of Treasures of the Tsimshian from the Dundas Collection turned into a dour political snubbing. 

"It belongs to us," James Bryant, a spokesman for the hereditary chiefs of the Allied Tsimshian Tribes of Lax Kw'alaams and Metlakatla, defiantly declared as the collection's new owners shifted uncomfortably in the audience.

"We cannot touch them ... we're still locked out," said Wayne Ryan, chief of the Xy'uup tribe, one of several elders who complained about the artifacts being encased under glass. 

The 40 artifacts on display are the most significant items from the famed Dundas Collection. Of mostly Tsimshian origin, it is considered by many to be the finest collection of northwest coast native art in existence.

The collection's history dates back to its acquisition in 1863, at Old Metlakatla, near present-day Prince Rupert, where it was given up - or stolen, depending on your point of view - as part of the natives' conversion to Christianity to Rev. Robert James Dundas by Anglican missionary William Duncan. 

Simon Carey, a London-based clinical psychologist and great-grandson of Dundas, took possession of the items in 1960. After decades of dispute with the collection's native claimants and unsuccessful negotiations with some of the world's top cultural institutions, he put the items up for auction at Sotheby's in New York last fall.

The record-setting auction, the first sale of so-called American Indian art to fetch more than $7-million (U.S.), attracted intense interest from bidders around the world. 

At the eleventh hour, after a special grant request made by the Royal BC Museum was rejected by the province of B.C. and it appeared that this important cache of Canadian cultural history was going to be scattered to the four winds, members of the Thomson family suddenly stepped up to the plate, spending more than $5-million to repatriate the collection. "It was so sad," says Sherry Brydson, a niece of the late Ken Thomson and resident of Victoria, who purchased 19 of the 40 artifacts.

Brydson, whose family is sponsoring the exhibit's national tour through its private investment firm Westerkirk Capital, says she had never purchased an item at auction before reading about the Dundas Collection's plight in a Globe and Mail article written by Sarah Milroy, published the day before the auction. 

"I fussed and fumed and stewed for several hours," she explains, before she called up her cousin, Toronto's David Thomson, whose father, Lord Thomson, was a high-profile collector and donor of artworks until his death last year.

Together, she and Thomson spent $5.7-million on 23 objects that include a magnificent Tsimshian wooden face mask purchased for $1.8-million,and a clan hat, purchased for $660,000. 

Rather than hoarding the pieces, they went to the other nine owners and initiated a national tour, which is being co-ordinated by the Royal BC Museum in Victoria and Donald Ellis, the Ontario-based native artifacts dealer who represented Brydson, Thomson and several other owners at the Sotheby's auction.

The exhibit's organizers have gone to great lengths to include and respect the wishes of the collection's original owners. The tour, which moves to the Art Gallery of Ontario in July, was launched on March 1 at the Museum of Northern BC in Prince Rupert, in traditional Tsimshian territory, at the request of the chiefs and elders of the Allied Tsimshian Tribes. 

But at Friday's [27 April 2007] opening ceremony at the Royal BC Museum, which featured a ceremonial dance by the Gwis'amiihlgigohl Performers and a speech from Lieutenant-Governor Iona Campagnolo, the Tsimshian chiefs who travelled to Victoria made it clear that they are still not happy.

"These treasures were intended to be passed from generation to generation," Bryant said. "The way they were taken was one of the biggest mistakes that was ever made, and has been repaid."

The chiefs thanked the Songhees and Esquimalt Peoples of the Coast Salish First Nation for allowing them into their traditional territories. They thanked the Lieutenant-Governor for attending. They thanked the museum for making it all possible. And they thanked the "white people" who appreciate their "little baubles and stuff." 

But not one of the seven chiefs who spoke made any reference to the new owners, a snub that could only be interpreted as deliberate.

"I found it unfortunate that a group of Tsimshian elders chose to use a day that should have celebrated the artistic achievements of Tsimshian artists and the actions of a group of Canadian philanthropists as a platform to air old grievances," Ellis quietly fumed after the ceremony.  

Willy White, director of the Museum of Northern British Columbia, shrugged off the slight, explaining that the feelings of resentment weren't necessarily reflective of his people.

"When we speak, we only speak the truth. The truth sometimes isn't nice to hear, but it's always going to be the truth." 

White said the exhibit's opening in Prince Rupert was one of the most controversial he had witnessed.

"I couldn't even go out to get groceries without people coming up to me wanting to talk about it, whether their feelings were positive, negative or neutral. That's what true art does and I think it speaks volumes about this exhibit. Every one of those pieces is a masterpiece."

Among the many comments he heard, White says there was much praise for the new owners. "People said to me 'Thank God for them. If it weren't for them, we never would have seen it.' "

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