Steven Clay Brown, Donald Ellis Gallery. Tsimshian Treasures: The Remarkable Journey of the Dundas Collection. Dundas, Ont./New York: Donald Ellis Gallery, 2007. 143 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-295-98738-5; (cloth), ISBN 978-1-55365-332-5.
Reviewed by Megan Smetzer (Department of History, University of British Columbia)
Published on H-Canada (February, 2008)
Behind Glass: Reflections on Tsimshian Treasures
Almost 143 years to the day that Anglican missionary Robert Dundas acquired a collection of Tsimshian objects from Metlakatla, British Columbia, the collection was sold at auction. Achieving approximately seven million dollars, this auction broke records as the highest amount ever paid for a private collection of Native North American objects. Among the cultural institutions and private collectors who purchased the objects were those intent on retrieving what they felt was a significant part of Canadian cultural patrimony. In fact, many of these objects, ranging from baskets and combs to masks and crest hats, were relinquished by their Tsimshian owners during a period of intense missionary pressure to assimilate, a process supported by increasingly repressive government policies, and disruptions to traditional Tsimshian hierarchies. These cultural belongings, then, are more than a part of Canadian cultural patrimony; they are integral to specific rights, privileges, and histories among the Tsimshian.
Despite passing references to this history in the essays contained within the covers of Tsimshian Treasures, the reiteration by each author of the acquisition of this collection leaves one with a sense that the historical injustices surrounding this collection's history are secondary to the history of non-Native heroes--the three British men who were instrumental in the initial acquisition of these objects, and the more recent private Canadian citizens who stepped up at the last minute and saved these objects from being dispersed throughout the world. While this is certainly one version of history that could be told, its foregrounding supplants those that exist in the Tsimshian families and communities that made, used, and valued these objects. In light of the many recent collaborative, multivocal exhibitions and catalogues, this book is a missed opportunity to contribute to an important and ongoing dialogue.
Donald Ellis, a Toronto (and now New York City) gallery owner specializing in historic North American Indian art writes in the preface about his decades-long attempt to acquire the collection. Referring to this collection as "A Canadian Cultural Legacy" in his title, Ellis underlines his perspective by stating: "it was immediately apparent to me that this group of objects, with their rich history, belonged to Canada and all Canadians. They had to be returned" (p. 13). Ellis's words continue a well-established, but troubling, tradition of using First Nations objects to set Canada as a nation apart from all others.
Art historian Bill Holm's introduction emphasizes the aesthetic aspects of these objects over the history of their removal. He states that knowledge about the collector as well as the time and place of collection are "eminently useful in establishing the characteristics of northern British Columbia Native art in the middle years of the 19th century" (p. 16). Holm's focus on the style of these objects further disassociates them from the colonial history that led to their removal.
Providing a context for the exhibition's opening in Prince Rupert, Globe and Mail reporter Sara Milroy's "Reflection" is a personal account of the experience. This evocative essay reiterates the history related above, but also touches on some of the current issues that continue to affect First Nations communities and individuals. She argues that guilt and anger do not get us very far and though the return of these objects to the nation of Canada remains problematic, it should be taken as "a step toward redemption" (p. 36).
Alan Hoover, former curator of ethnology for the Royal British Columbia Museum, provides a history of collecting on the Northwest Coast, and also focuses on the three men involved in acquiring these pieces. Drawing from archival and published texts, he disentangles the relationships and monetary transactions involved in the acquisition of the collection, and speculates on the clan origins of many of the pieces. In his single reference to "the contemporary Tsimshian position," Hoover points out how these documents support Tsimshian assertions that the highly ranked convert Ligeex "was not a major source of artifacts in the Dundas Collection" (p. 62). This statement, as well as Hoover's attempt to link objects with specific clan houses, could have been further enriched with community consultation or collaboration.
Steven C. Brown, former curator of Native American art at the Seattle Art Museum, provides aesthetic descriptions of each of the objects illustrated in the book. This is another area where the inclusion of related stories, community perspectives, or, at the very least, the Sm'algyax names for each of these objects would have added layers of meaning, and if not privileged, at least acknowledged community-based knowledge.
In his afterword, noted Chilkat weaver and director of the Museum of Northern British Columbia, William White, eloquently expresses the issues involved with the return of these objects. Though he thanks the individuals who assisted in the return, he situates the objects within the protocols, knowledge, and concerns of contemporary Tsimshian people. White gently reminds us about ongoing issues of repatriation, the impact of living artists, and the fact that these objects are not Canadian. He writes: "as the rest of the world looks at our ceremonial objects, we hope they realize that every item they see is based on our oral histories and traditions and is the Tsimshian worldview as seen through the eyes of our carvers' incredible artistic vision" (p. 136). Though White's contribution cannot balance the cumulative weight of the westernized perspectives presented in the catalogue, it does bring to the forefront other ways of knowing and the range of perspectives held by Tsimshian community members in relation to this collection.
A significant component of this catalogue is the lavish inclusion of photographs, both historic and contemporary. For this reason, it is necessary to consider in some depth the ways in which these images have been used. The cover photograph sets the tone for the catalogue as a whole as it appears to have been taken through the case holding a mask of a human face shown in profile. Beyond the mask, a person, clothed in a button robe and woven cedar bark hat, faces away from the camera. Neither the beauty of the mask nor the potency of the "vibrant, living people" as described by Ellis is apparent in this image (p. 14). Possibly intended to convey ideas about the convergence of past and present, or cultural reflections, the cover image comes across as blurry and distorted, distracting from more central issues, such as ownership and repatriation.
Fortunately, few of the photographs depicting the opening of the exhibition at the Museum of Northern British Columbia are as difficult to read as the cover. The majority of the contemporary images are powerful and beautiful, intimate and expressive. Yet, it is deeply problematic that not a single caption is used to identify the people within each image. This erasure of specific identities essentializes both the individuals and the complexities of contemporary Tsimshian perspectives.
Reflections play a part in several of the contemporary photographs. Whether intentional or not, these visually reinforce the continued separation of these objects from their community of origin. Though the wonder and excitement of the temporary return of these pieces is visible in the faces of those who look, the reflecting vitrines are an unavoidable presence, reinforcing the notion that the community can look, but not touch.
The black and white images illustrating Hoover's essay illuminate some of the uncritical ways in which photographs are often used in reconstructing histories of this sort. Most obviously, all of the photographs of British men are identified, whereas all but one of the Tsimshian individuals is not. This is particularly apparent in the images captioned "Tsimshian wood carver at Metlakatla" and "Tsimshian artist at work" (pp. 62, 64). Both men in these photographs are known, and this information should have been included. The former depicts Neeshlut (Sidney Campbell) in his carving shed in Metlakatla, Alaska, circa 1905; the latter is a picture of Haida carver John Robson. B. A. Haldane, a Tsimshian man and the earliest known professional First Nations photographer, took both photographs, which adds yet another layer of significance to these images. Additionally, the inclusion of photographs from different regions and cultural groups, and a time period nearly four decades later than the history related in the text, visually essentializes both the people and the complicated colonial history of the Northwest Coast.
The photographic catalogue of the objects that comprises the second half of the book is of high quality and captures the detail of each piece. Though they are no substitute for access to the originals, these images will contribute to subsequent analyses of the objects and the collection. This raises the point, however, that without comparing this book to the Sotheby's sale catalogue, it is impossible to know how many objects were up for auction, how many were returned to Canada, and how many of those are reproduced here. At the very least, a list of the items that were sold should have been included somewhere in the book.
Upon seeing this collection, which is currently traveling throughout Canada, the unrealized potential of this book becomes even more apparent. These pieces are not only exquisitely rendered, but their physical presence, encased behind glass, embodies the entangled histories of First Nations individuals and communities with the Euro-Canadians who came later. These relationships could have been articulated in such a way as to contribute to a critical reexamination of this period on the Northwest Coast. For all of its shortcomings, Tsimshian Treasures has value in terms of capturing a moment in the continuing saga of these objects and the people who have been in contact with them over the past century and a half. There is no doubt that the history of this collection is far from over.
. See, for example, Peter MacNair, Daina Augaitis, Marianne Johnes, and Nika Collison, Raven Travelling: Two Centuries of Haida Art (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 2006); Peter MacNair, Jay Stewart, Robert Joseph, and Mary Jane Lenz, Listening to Our Ancestors: The Art of Native Life Along the Pacific Northwest Coast (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2005); Aron L. Crowell, Amy F. Steffian, and Gordon L. Pullar, eds., Looking Both Ways: Heritage and Identity of the Aluutiq People (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2001); and Martha Black, Huupukwanum-Tupaat. Out of the Mist: Treasures of the Nuu-chah-nulth Chiefs (Victoria: Royal British Columbia Museum, 1999).
. This approach has been critiqued in recent years in, for example, Leslie A. Dawn, National Vision, National Blindness: Canadian Art and Identity in the 1920s (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2006); and Ronald W. Hawker, Tales of Ghosts: First Nations Art in British Columbia, 1922-61 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2003).
. Mique'l Askren, "From Negative to Positive: B. A. Haldane, Nineteenth Century Tsimshian Photographer" (master's thesis, University of British Columbia, 2006).
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Megan Smetzer. Review of Brown, Steven Clay; Donald Ellis Gallery., Tsimshian Treasures: The Remarkable Journey of the Dundas Collection.
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