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October 20 2019

Donald Ellis Repatriates an Important Sun Mask to British Columbia

Globe and Mail

Marsha Lederman of the Globe and Mail writes that for almost 100 years after being seized and sold by Indian Agents of the Canadian government, Donald Ellis has returned a rare Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw Sun Mask to its community in Alert Bay, British Columbia. The donation follows more than two years of negotiations with a private collector in France. 

On Christmas Day in 1921, Chief Cranmer of the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw Nation of Alert Bay hosted the largest potlatch recorded in the history of British Columbia in defiance of the Indian Act. The potlatch was the primary occasion for negotiating rank, rights, kinship, privileges, and inheritances. From 1885 to 1951 the Canadian government banned the celebration of these great gift-giving feasts, part of a wider effort to assimilate the Indigenous population through the forceful repression of language and cultural practices codified by law. In perhaps the most infamous instance of colonial expropriation in Canada, the federal government arrested approximately 45 participants, seized and sold around 750 items from the Cranmer Potlatch to museums around the globe. First acquired by the Museum of the American Indian in New York, the Sun Mask later found its way to France, where it remained in the collection of the renowned anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Although the Indian Act was partially reformed in 1951, a number of seized works remain in museums and private collections. In 2017, the leading academic Marie Mauzé identified the Sun Mask taken from the Cranmer Potlatch while cataloguing a group of Northwest Coast works of art at Christie’s in Paris. Following several years of negotiation, Donald Ellis finally facilitated the return of this extraordinary mask to the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, B.C., in 2019. U’mista, which means ‘the return of something important,’ is a First Nations museum established 40 years ago to house repatriated potlatch objects. It is now an important educational centre whose mission is to preserve Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw cultural heritage. 

The homecoming was timed to coincide with the July 20 opening of a major exhibition, The Story Box: Franz Boas, George Hunt and the Making of Anthropology, which re-examines the proper status of Hunt, an Indigenous informant, as co-author of Boas’s seminal publication The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians. The exhibition, which opened at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in New York, was brought to U’mista thanks to funding from Donald Ellis and others.

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Donald Ellis Repatriates an Important Sun Mask to British Columbia