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U’mista Cultural Centre celebrates 40 years of repatriating stolen objects

A new 40th anniversary exhibit will be unveiled online, Nov. 7
Check out U’mista’s new exhibit online, Nov. 7, 2020. (Zoe Ducklow)

U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay is celebrating their 40th year with a virtual unveiling of their latest exhibit, curated for the anniversary. The event will be live streamed on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram on Nov. 7, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Forty years ago, the U’mista Cultural Centre was formed in part to repatriate ceremonial masks, regalia and other artwork that were stolen in the 1920s during the potlatch ban. The items were sold to art collectors and doled out to Indian Agents for their private collections.

Finally the potlatch ban was lifted in 1951, and Kwakwaka’wakw people asked for their things to be returned. One by one, masks were returned and are now displayed in a permanent exhibit.

U’mista — which means something or someone has been returned after being stolen — is much more than just a museum, as the 40th Anniversary Exhibit will demonstrate.

It’s also a research hub dedicated to chronicling the history of Kwakwaka’wakw people and developing an orthography for the Kwak’wala language. The orthography developed a written form of Kwak’wala, a language that has no alphabet. The written system has to communicate sounds visually so learners can pronounce the words correctly.

READ MORE: Visiting the present past at U’mista Cultural Centre

Repatriating the masks and developing the orthography is personal work for U’mista’s board chairperson Bill Cranmer. His father was the famous Dan Cranmer. It was Dan’s potlatch in 1921 that drew the attention of the Indian Agent and from where most of the masks and regalia were confiscated by the government.

“Of course though all of our years of working with repatriation we’ve really got to understand why the potlatch law was put in place and why the government did that,” Bill said.

“For a long time people were asking, why did the church and government want to stop your ceremonies? It was to weaken our people so it would be easier to steal our land. They pretty near succeeded.”

The strength and resurgence of Kwakwaka’wakw people today prove the failure of the government’s attempts. U’mista’s 40th Anniversary exhibit is one more celebration of cultural might.

Due to the coronavirus, U’mista is asking fans not to visit the museum in person, but to take advantage of their online exhibits. Donations in lieu of admission tickets are also greatly appreciated. Find details of the live stream on U’mista’s Facebook page.

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