A man who helped return a 140-year-old Tlingit robe to a First Nation in British Columbia where it was made says it looks like the regalia called the people and they brought it home.
The intricately woven Chilkat robe, made of mountain goat wool and yellow cedar bark, was purchased by the Taku River Tlingit First Nation in northwest BC for nearly $40,000 after it went up for sale at a Toronto auction house last year.
The robe arrived in Whitehorse Wednesday and will travel 110 miles south to the First Nation’s traditional territory in Atlin, BC, where it is expected to be displayed and used in future ceremonies.
As the community celebrates the return of a piece of heritage, said the First Nation Indigenous peoples should not be forced to buy back regalia stolen from them.
It calls on the federal government to take action to prevent similar situations in the future.
Tlingit elder and master sculptor Wayne Carlick said his heart “probably exploded” when the robe’s close connection to his community was confirmed after seeing it online.
As an artist and residential school survivor, Carlick said he got emotional looking at the robe and understanding the history it represents.
“I think about when I came home from residential school, I didn’t see art, I didn’t see language, I didn’t see dance or song. People were really suffering and hurting and there was no art,” he said in an interview from the airport in Vancouver.
“It took me a long time to start seeing First Nation art, West Coast First Nation art, and so it took me a long time to get to this point.”
Carlick said getting the mantle back is an opportunity for the younger generation to see art in a way they couldn’t at their age, and learn about the country’s history and resilience.
It was late last year when a friend of Carlick’s first saw the cloak up for auction and sent him the online link.
Carlick said he’d seen many similar artifacts, but this was the first one he encountered featuring wolves, an animal common to the Taku River Tlingit culture.
The pair began researching and calling museums across North America, before realizing that the cloak came from a well-known Taku River Tlingit family.
Carlick’s friend, a local Atlin named Peter Wright, agreed to step in and bid for the mantle on the understanding that the First Nation would pay him back.
The Taku River Tlingit said in a statement in December that the piece was originally expected to sell for an estimated $15,000 to $20,000, but it came in at a whopping $38,000.
It’s unclear how the item was part of a private collection in Ontario.
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The First Nation spokesman said in a statement Wednesday that they are thrilled to see a piece of their heritage being returned.
“This long-awaited homecoming fills our hearts with happiness and strengthens our spiritual bond with our ancestors. However, we must recognize that restoring our First Nation relationships with the federal government is equally critical,” the statement said.
“It is unacceptable for a first nation to have to buy back their stolen property, and we urge the government to take responsibility for this matter. In accordance with (the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) government must prioritize truth and reconciliation efforts, including addressing these kinds of injustices.”
The First Nation has said there are currently hundreds of Tlingit artworks in outlying museums and private art collections, meaning members of the community rarely have the chance to see them.
Ben Louter, a heritage archaeologist at the Taku River Tlingit, said a special display case for the robe is being built by New York experts and will be installed in the First Nation government’s office in Atlin.
The glass protects the delicate fibers against UV rays and the housing is moisture-regulating.
An official repatriation ceremony is scheduled for July as part of a three-day event involving all of Canada’s Inland Tlingit communities.