To the sounds of drumming and singing, the Burke Museum gives the Stone T'xwelátse to groups that had claimed it.
The Burke Museum lost a piece of its collection Friday afternoon, then threw a party to celebrate.
The Burke has held the Stone T’xwelátse (Tix-wil-aht-sah), a 4-foot-high stone sculpture sacred to the Stó:lo Nation of British Columbia and the Nooksack Indian Tribal Council, for more than 100 years.
After 14 years of negotiations, involving tribal members, the Burke Museum and the federal government, the statue has been repatriated to the Native groups that claimed it.
To the sounds of drumming and singing, tribal members wheeled the statue, sitting in a small canoe built for the occasion, into a museum room.
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Museum officials say the ceremony represented the first time in state history that a repatriation has occurred across international borders.
“We want you to understand that to us, he’s alive,” said Herb Joe, a member of the Stó:lo Nation who also carries the name T’xwelátse. “He is the embodiment of one of our ancestors.”
Stó:lo people believe that T’xwelátse is an ancient ancestor who was turned to stone long ago. The sculpture was created in the Chilliwack Valley, in what is now British Columbia. In the 1800s, an intertribal marriage resulted in the statue being moved to neighboring Sumas, which now is in Washington state.
A Washington mob crossed over to Canada in 1884 and lynched a 14-year-old Stó:lo boy, nearly starting a cross-border war between Indians and whites. In 1892, Native communities in Sumas fled, and lost control of the Stone T’xwelátse.
Displayed in store
The statue spent some time as a display in a dime store before the Young Naturalists Society acquired it a few years later in Seattle. The Young Naturalists, sons of some of Seattle’s founding families, founded the current Burke Museum.
“This object has been at the Burke since the beginning of the Burke,” said Peter Lape, the museum’s curator of archaeology.
For most of that time, the Burke didn’t really know what it had.
“As far as they were concerned, it was ‘North Coast Art,’ ” Joe said.
But in 1990, when a researcher hired by the Stó:lo Nation heard Joe’s other name pronounced at a ceremony, he realized it was connected to an object he had seen in the Burke Museum and alerted Joe, who asked his “grandmas,” elder women of his people, what to do.
“They said, ‘You carry the name. You bring him home,’ ” he said.
That began a lengthy effort, working with museum officials, to repatriate his stone ancestor.
The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act mandates museums to return important Native cultural objects to their owners — but only if they are federally recognized tribes.
The Stó:lo Nation negotiated with family members in the Nooksack Tribe, a closely related and federally recognized group that speaks the same language, to demand the object’s return on the Stó:lo’s behalf.
Friday’s event at the museum was also an example of a Native object being repatriated on happy terms; the process is often a contentious one, Lape said.
Because the law that created a repatriation process for Native American artifacts only applies to museums that receive federal funding, not every museum is bound by it.
“If this had ended up in a private collection, this wouldn’t be happening,” Lape said.
Visit to reservation
On Monday, the Stone T’xwelátse will be loaded into a van and taken to the Nooksack reservation, where that tribe will hold a celebration next week.
The following week, the statue will be returned to the Chilliwack tribal offices. Ultimately, when that tribe builds its new healing center, it will be the statue’s permanent home.
Joe Mullin: 206-464-2761 or firstname.lastname@example.org