At 86 years old, Gloria Cranmer Webster’s lifelong work promoting and preserving Kwakwaka’wakw culture is being honoured with Canada’s highest award.
Webster was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada, an award which recognizes a national service or achievement. “My funny son made a joke of this when I told him, he said does this mean I have to salute you?” laughed Webster in an interview at her home in Alert Bay.
She is still so surprised by the award that she exclaimed, “Little Alert Bay! How did they find me!”
Webster’s journey to this moment actually started 10 years before she was born, when in 1921, her father Kwakwaka’wakw hereditary Chief Dan Cranmer, held a huge potlatch on Village Island.
At that time potlatch was illegal as they had been banned by the Canadian government since 1884.
“People were arrested for doing things like making speeches, for dancing, for singing, for distributing gifts – and then they were told if you give up your masks you won’t go to jail,” said Webster.
Most of the seized items were taken, either sent to museums in Ottawa or Toronto, including the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Royal Ontario Museum.
“It was a long time,” said Webster. “It was in the early 70s when it began to look like we could get them back.”
Having been the first Indigenous woman to graduate from UBC, with a BA in anthropology, Webster was leading a successful career.
She was working as the assistant curator at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. “I always knew that when there was something to do here I needed to come home.”
Webster came back to Alert Bay in 1975, and began working on getting the items returned. “The museum in Ottawa agreed on the condition we build a museum to hold the collection so that’s what we did,” said Webster.
She then helped found the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, where she was also a long time curator, to house the repatriated items.
Webster said it wasn’t always easy getting the items back. She recounted a conversation with an official at the museum in Toronto, “He said we’ve discussed this and if this goes to court we have a good chance of winning and I said – fire your lawyer.”
They never had to go to court, but Webster said if they did, she would have won.
“She’s amazing I keep telling her that,” said Webster’s niece Myrna Cranmer, who is now working with Webster on Kwak’wala language revitalization. “She knows the culture and it’s important that people talk about it and know that she’s still here.”
Webster has produced 12 language books with the help of her friend Jay Powell who is a retired linguist at UBC. “It’s on going, it never stops,” said Cranmer of Webster’s work.
“She’s still working with Peter McNair for the Museum of Natural History in New York and a curator from there is coming next week.”
Webster said one of the most amazing experiences she’s had in her long career was meeting an Ainu man at a conference she attended in Sweden.
The Ainu are an Indigenous people in Northern Japan. The two became pen pals and he even brought 20 Ainu people with him to visit Alert Bay.
“We had a really good visit. We had dinner in the big house, our kids performed dances, and one of the young Ainu women got so emotional she was crying – she said I have to go home and become more involved in my culture,” said Webster, adding “I thought about that – this little island having that kind of impact from across the ocean. That felt pretty good.”
Cranmer is currently working on compiling all of the newsletters and essays Webster wrote on typewriter throughout her career.
“Aunty Glo has worked with old people and got all the information and now she has become an old person herself and people need to come and talk to her, and people need to come and record her,” said Cranmer adding, “she’s an inspiration.”
Webster will fly to Ottawa to officially accept the award on August 26.