Whaling Shrine in Limbo

Posted by Daniel on Apr 18, 2013

Jeff Lee had an interesting article in The Vancouver Sun earlier this week about the fate of one of the province's most intriguing cultural artifacts (even though it has not actually been in the province for more than a century).

The Whalers' Washing House, also known as the Yuquot Whalers' Shrine, was a collection of human skulls and wooden carvings assembled in a plank shed on an island in Jewitt Lake a few minutes walk from the Mowachaht village of Yuquot on Nootka Island on the far west coast of Vancouver Island. The effigies and bones were used in the rituals associated with the whale hunts conducted by the Mowachaht people since long before the arrival of Europeans.

The shrine was an intensely private place. Only whaling chiefs were allowed to use it and very few outsiders even got a look. But in 1904 George Hunt, acting as the local agent for the American anthropologist Franz Boas, purchased the shrine for $500 for the American Museum of Natural History. The items were boxed up and shipped to New York City where they have been ever since in storage in the museum's basement. In 1991 a delegation of Mowachaht went to New York to view the artifacts, which are considered to have played a crucial role in the spiritual life of the community.

Discussions have been going on ever since about repatriating the shrine but it is a complicated issue. As Lee reports, the community has been trying to raise the money required to build a new home for the shrine but so far has been unsuccessful.

There are precedents for such repatriation, of course. In 1922 police raided a potlatch on Village Island, arresting almost three dozen people. All manner of ceremonial regalia were seized and ended up in the White Man's museums. Many years later these items were repatriated to the coast and can now be seen in purpose-built cultural centres at Cape Mudge and Alert Bay.

Perhaps this is eventually what will happen with the Whalers' Shrine. Until then, an important part of BC history languishes in the basement of a New York museum.

Lee's article is here. A fine book about the Washing House is The Yuquot Whalers' Shrine (1999) by Aldona Jonaitis.