Not to be outdone by foreign collectors, local museums joined the scramble for artifacts. A group of prominent Victoria residents convinced the provincial government that a local museum was needed to stem the hemorrhaging of cultural objects from coastal villages. In 1886 the Provincial Museum of Natural History and Anthropology (now the Royal BC Museum) opened on a very small scale, consisting mainly of curator John Fannin’s collection of stuffed animals. But it was a start, and in subsequent years, thanks mainly to the efforts of Charles Newcombe, the institution’s principal ethnological collector, the provincial museum acquired a respectable array of objects.
Newcombe, a medical doctor by profession, was a passionate amateur naturalist and ethnologist. He arrived in Victoria in 1889 and immediately became a leading member of the Natural History Society, the organization that supported the new museum. In his 7.3-metre sailboat, the Pelican, Newcombe made annual forays along the coast picking up items for a variety of clients, most importantly the Field Museum in Chicago. He also amassed a sizeable collection of his own, which he sold to the museum in Ottawa. Meanwhile the provincial museum, sensitive to accusations that it was allowing so many valuable cultural items to be plundered from under its nose, finally came up with the funds to expand its own collection and during the immediate pre-World War One period Newcombe made several excursions on its behalf.
The war more or less marked the end of the most intensive period of collecting on the coast. From the villages of southern Vancouver Island all the way to Alaska, the competition for artifacts was intense from the 1880s until about 1906 when the large, American museums decided that they had enough. Collecting then continued on a smaller scale until by war’s end almost nothing of value was left in the villages. The indigenous material culture of the Northwest Coast had been transported to New York, Berlin, Chicago, Victoria, Ottawa and other metropoles. As Douglas Cole observed, “New York City probably housed more British Columbia material than British Columbia herself.”
While the First Nations for the most part participated voluntarily in the scramble for West Coast artifacts, the process nonetheless was clouded by ethical ambiguities. Take, for example, the case of the Whalers’ Washing House at Yuqout in Nootka Sound. This mysterious shrine was located on an island in Jewitt Lake a few minutes walk from the village. It consisted of an open plank shed containing an assemblage of human skulls and wooden carvings, some of whales and some of human figures. The effigies and bones were used as part of the ritual magic associated with the whale hunt carried out by the Mowachaht people who lived at Yuquot. The shrine was an intensely private place. Only whaling chiefs were allowed to use it; only visitors perceived to have some kind of spirit power were even allowed to see it.
In 1903 Franz Boas’s agent on the coast, George Hunt, managed to convince a local chief to allow him to visit the shrine and the following year he returned to Yuquot with a mandate from Boas to purchase it for the American Museum of Natural History. The son of an English trader and a Tlingit mother, Hunt grew up at Fort Rupert and considered himself to be Kwakwaka’wakw. His knowledge of Aboriginal society made him one of the most productive agents on the coast. At Yuquot he made a deal with one chief to purchase the shrine for $500, at which point a second chief claimed that he was the rightful owner. In the end, Hunt paid each chief $250, and agreed to smuggle the contents away from the village so that no one would find out they had been sold.
The shrine was boxed up and shipped to New York City where it has remained ever since. The modern Mowachaht came to view the removal of the Whalers’ Washing House as a serious blow to the spiritual life of their community. In 1991, they sent a delegation to New York to view the elements of the shrine, which were found stored away in drawers in the museum’s basement, and a process began by which the people hope to reclaim the shrine and place it back in their territory.
The story of the whaling shrine raises many questions. Did Boas and Hunt pay a fair price for the items? How would a fair price even be calculated? The artifacts would have had a ceremonial or spiritual significance that could not be calculated in dollars and cents. Did the people who sold them have the right to do so? More broadly, were collectors and their agents pillaging a civilization or, as they thought, preserving it?
To the people who viewed them in museums and at world’s fairs, the artifacts collected on the Northwest Coast were relics of an exotic way of life that no longer existed. The people of the Northwest Coast who had produced the items were reduced to historical artifacts themselves. In this way the museum scramble was part of the wider process by which the indigenous cultures of the coast were being challenged by the arrival of outsiders with an agenda for change.
In December 1914, fourteen Nu-chah-nulth chiefs wrote to Duncan Campbell Scott to protest the ban on the potlatch. “We see our white friends give presents to one another. Why cannot we do the same?” they asked. “They give feasts, why should we be persecuted for giving a feast? They have dances. Why should we not be allowed to dance also.” But this was just the point. Scott and the other agents of change, who would have been appalled at having their own pastimes compared to what they thought of as the heathen pursuits of the First Nations, did not want to live and let live. They were out to remake Aboriginal culture, and what they could not remake they would destroy. Their role was to facilitate the makeover by preparing the people to accept the inevitability of the new world that was coming.
But the First Nations had no intention of suffering in silence the treatment that was being meted out to them. Despite all the efforts to force them to abandon their old ways in favour of the new, they made their own adjustments to the arrival of the outsiders. They accommodated the new religions to their own spiritual beliefs, rebuffed attempts to outlaw their ceremonies, fought to retain their land rights, and in many other ways opposed the paternalistic policies of the government and the churches. Of course the pressure to assimilate was insistent and powerful. The First Nations did not win every battle, or even most of them. But neither did they simply disappear, as the most complacent whites expected. And as new economic opportunities developed on the coast, First Nations people stepped forward to participate in them. In the mines, sawmills, lumber camps, fields and fish canneries, they became an essential part of the labour force, as anthropologist Franz Boas discovered when he paid his first visit to the coast in 1886. “Certain Indian tribes have already become indispensable on the labour market,” he reported, “and without them the province would suffer great economic damage.”
Next time: The fishery begins