Dark conifers loom large behind the cemetery in Skidegate, Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii to the aboriginal population). Haida activist Andy Wilson, 51, stands silently in the old graveyard, which sits on a hillside overlooking the islands’ main road and beyond it the Hecate Strait, where ravens, bald eagles and other raptors fish, and grey whales cruise by.

Crosses mark many of the graves of those who have died here in recent decades. Behind them, closer to the forest, are six large, oblong, grass-covered mounds. Buried within are close to 500 bentwood boxes containing the remains — in some cases only a skull, or a handful of bones — of Haida people who died on the islands more than a hundred years ago, but which have only been returned to this final resting place in the last several years, from museums where they ended up in the early 20th century.

Each mound will soon be marked with a simple carved wooden sign (sitting for the moment in the nearby sheds that house two famous Haida warrior canoes), indicating which museum the remains came from, and when the repatriation took place. These museums include the Museum of Natural History in New York, Chicago’s Field Museum, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the British Columbia Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. All were at one time the recipients of remains collected by over-zealous anthropologists who assumed they were doing humanity a favour (not to mention polishing their reputations and lining their pockets) by saving “specimens” of a “dying race.”

The raising of the signs coincided with an official “end of mourning” ceremony on the summer solstice this past June 21 — National Aboriginal Day. Elders from the community and others came to preside over the improvised proceedings (as Wilson comments wryly, “we didn’t ever expect to have to re-bury our dead, so there’s no traditional reburial ceremony”), making offerings of food to the spirits, canoeing to a small sacred island to sing, drum and chant prayers and returning to march in a procession to the graveyard. A feast followed the burning of masks, and bandanas used to wipe away tears of grief, true symbols of letting go of grief.

Curators from several of the museums involved in the repatriation also came to honour the dead. In all 700 people participated and witnessed the ceremonies.

“It’s sad in one way, because we don’t know who these people were. We didn’t have room in the cemetery to bury each one individually,” says Wilson. He smiles though, with a mixture of weariness and quiet pride. “We expect there’ll be more.”

A long process

The repatriation of Haida remains has received much attention in the media over the years, thanks to the determined organizational efforts of the Haida themselves. It was Wilson and fellow members of a Haida repatriation committee, along with hundreds of people in the community, including non-aboriginals, who worked for more than a decade to bring the bones home. It was an arduous and slow process. Museum curators across the continent had to be contacted and persuaded to help with the sometimes delicate logistics of transferring the remains back to Haida Gwaii.

It meant lots of travel, to Chicago, New York, Oregon, Toronto, Ottawa and, closer to home, Vancouver and Victoria, B.C. The group managed to finance their efforts through a mostly local campaign that raised $150,000; government input was minimal. Local people constructed the bentwood boxes and painted them; even young schoolchildren helped sew the traditional button blankets in which the remains would be wrapped. Many participated in the reburial ceremonies.

Different laws and opinions

American curators, governed by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), are mandated to return human remains when there is no dispute as to their origins. Canadian institutions aren’t governed by a similar law, but most are taking a cooperative approach with aboriginal groups who ask for these remains to be returned.

And it isn’t just the Haida who are demanding that this process take place. Members of the Algonquin First Nation also held ceremonies on National Aboriginal Day to mark the return of dozens of human remains and funerary objects from the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec.

Not all curators agree with the repatriation process, at least when it may jeopardize scientific study. Several anthropologists adamantly opposed the return of the Algonquin remains without their DNA collected, arguing that the loss of knowledge, particularly of early migration patterns, was too great.

But many understand that the sacrifice, or at least compromises, may be inevitable, as aboriginal people have lost patience with the old world view that allowed scientists to conduct research without permission — and which allowed the blatant theft of many remains and artifacts in the first place.

Wilson says the community discussed whether to allow scientists to take samples from the Haida remains before they left their museum cabinets. There was some room to negotiate in the beginning. “First they said they’d take tiny samples. Then they wanted back molars. We thought ‘wait a minute,’ and took it back to the elders. It was their decision to say no. They feel they’ve put up with enough over the years.” And, he adds, many DNA tests have already been done, and will aid scientists studying human origins in North America.

Emotional work

Wilson says he receives daily calls and emails from native groups across the continent, asking for advice as they embark on their own repatriation quests. “It’s very emotional. I’ll sometimes be on the phone with people for hours.” He plans to attend the second annual international repatriation symposium in July, sponsored by the Kitigan Zibi Anishnabeg First Nation, in partnership with the First Nation Confederacy of Cultural Education Centers and the Assembly of First Nations, outside Maniwaki, Quebec.

Here, curators and aboriginal groups will discuss their successes, strategies and future plans for repatriation.

Next stop: Europe

The next frontier for the Haida and other groups, says Wilson, is the museums and private collections of Britain and Europe. Museum professionals there have taken a completely different stance from their North American colleagues, refusing outright to return any remains or artifacts. They argue that these are items of “world heritage,” kept in trust for all humanity.

Many aboriginal people find the argument unacceptable — especially in the case of objects and remains that are not on exhibit or currently being studied, but rather warehoused and neglected deep in the bowels of huge institutions.

It will likely be a tough battle, which is why Wilson says he’s taking a year off before getting involved again with that campaign. But he’s confident the Haida will ultimately succeed, if the pattern that emerged in North America is any model to go by. Many museum professionals here were skeptical at first, and reluctant to let go of their collections. But when they saw how organized and determined the Haida were, and when they realized that they could work collaboratively with them, their attitudes changed. “I saw it happen again and again, people would come here and get to know us and realize there was nothing to worry about,” says Wilson.

The recent “end of mourning” ceremony was a symbolic marker for all the work that has been done to date. But says Wilson, “the journey is just beginning. We’ll get our ancestors back.”