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February 08 2021

Repatriation of a Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw House Plank

An important Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw architectural house plank is back at the U’mista Cultural Center in Alert Bay, British Columbia, thanks to the efforts of Donald Ellis Gallery. The plank depicts Sisiutl, a mythical double-headed serpent, one of the most prominently featured subjects among art of the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest. 

The house plank was originally brought to the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 by George Hunt. A linguist and ethnologist in his own right, Hunt was born to a Tlingit noble-woman and an English fur trader for the Hudson’s Bay Company residing in Kwakwaka’wakw territory in Fort Rupert, British Columbia. Fluent in two Native languages as well as English, Hunt made significant contributions to Franz Boas’s research on Kwakwaka’wakw culture from the time of meeting Boas in 1888. Hunt was later recognized as the co-author of The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians, widely considered a foundational publication in the field of social anthropology. 

Hunt collected hundreds of works of art from his community in Fort Rupert. Organized to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the New World, he worked on an exhibit of the Northwest Coast First Nations for the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Along with 17 Native dancers, the exhibition included a facsimile Kwakwaka’wakw village complete with original houses and several totem poles. 

After the Exposition, many of the works on show were donated to the Field Museum in Chicago, among them this important architectural house plank. Later traded to the Denver Art Museum and then to the Newberry Library in Chicago, it was graciously repatriated to the Kwakwaka’wakw in 1997. Lacking the necessary funds for shipment, the plank remained on the library walls until August of 2020. Donald Ellis was very happy to assist in the long-awaited return home of this extraordinary Sisiutl house plank.

Although not illegally seized or removed from the community, Namgis Chief Bill Cranmer of Alert Bay expressed great joy about the return of the Sisiutl house plank. In September 2020 a welcoming ceremony was performed upon its arrival at the U’mista Cultural Centre, a First Nations museum and cultural center in Alert Bay founded to preserve Kwakwaka’wakw culture. 

Watch the plank’s journey home below:

Repatriation of a Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw House Plank
Kwakwakawakw House Plank in situ at the Newberry Library
Removing the house plank
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The house plank remained on the walls of the Newberry Library until August 2020
A team from Cadogan Tate carefully removed the plank from its mount and wrapped it up for transport back home to British Columbia
A team from Cadogan Tate carefully removed the plank from its mount and wrapped it up for transport back home to British Columbia
A team from Cadogan Tate carefully removed the plank from its mount and wrapped it up for transport back home to British Columbia
A team from Cadogan Tate carefully removed the plank from its mount and wrapped it up for transport back home to British Columbia
A team from Cadogan Tate carefully removed the plank from its mount and wrapped it up for transport back home to British Columbia
Upon its arrival in Alert Bay, the plank received a warm welcome from the team of the U'mista Cultural Centre, a First Nations museum and educational facility
The plank was unpacked in the exhibition halls of U'mista, which reunite many of the works seized during the Cranmer Potlatch of 1921
The plank was unpacked in the exhibition halls of U'mista, which reunite many of the works seized during the Cranmer Potlatch of 1921
The homecoming was celebrated by Namgis Chief Bill Cranmer and the community of Alert Bay with song and dance
The house plank now resides with its community and is on view at the U'mista Cultural Centre