The Yuquot Whalers' Shrine

George HuntGeorge Hunt image F-00466 courtesy of Royal British Columbia Museum


Franz and Gertrude BoasFranz and Gertrude Boas image courtesy of the American Philosophical Society.

In the early 1990s several groups of Mowachaht elders left their homes on Vancouver Island and travelled to New York. They had been invited by the American Museum of Natural History to see a mysterious object that had left their community ninety years ago. This object, the Yuquot Whalers’ Shrine, is composed of an original small building and its contents: 88 carved human figures, 4 carved whales, and 16 human skulls. It was collected in 1904 by George Hunt, acting on the instructions of a Museum curator, Franz Boas. The shrine had been built over several generations by Mowachaht ancestors, but few living band members had seen it. The question hanging over the elders was this: should the shrine come back home? But an outsider might well ask another question: why is it in New York at all?

Strange as its presence might seem in New York, it is in fact far from unusual. The American Museum has an enormous northwest native art collection, the largest in the world. And New York is not alone. Museums throughout the world have substantial collections of this art. So the shrine is part of a huge transfer of art and artifacts, from the Pacific Northwest to the rest of the world. The question really is, why did this transfer occur? In its original home it had meaning and relevance. To the rest of the world it did not. To understand why this happened we have to go back to the eighteenth century, and to the first contacts between natives and Europeans. Only by studying this relationship, and its subsequent developments, can the answer be found.

Europeans were late arriving in the Pacific Northwest. In 1774, nearly three centuries after Columbus, the first Europeans sailed up the coast. Commanded by Juan Perez, they were exploring for Spain. They landed at Nootka Sound and the Queen Charlotte Islands, and were the first to contact native people. From the very first they encountered people eager to trade. The natives would paddle out to the ship, greet the Europeans, and almost immediately start to bargain. More than one European noted how adept they were at commerce. They were very anxious to acquire European goods, especially anything made of iron. In return they offered a wide range of items, such as carvings, ornamented blankets, and other objects of their own manufacture. Their most prized offering, though, was not something they had made. It was sea otter pelts, worth a fortune in China.

Four years after Perez, Captain Cook had the same experience. Sailing for Britain, he arrived at Nootka Sound in 1778. He stayed for nearly a month, which gave him plenty of time to buy goods, and observe the natives as traders. He noted that nothing seemed sacred, and that even their “gods” were for sale. But other officers noticed a difference. Some masks were sold furtively, which suggested “an impious crime”. Other actions were more mysterious. When the Nootka boarded Cook’s ship, for example, they brought unusual carved heads. They simply gave these to the British, on condition they be displayed prominently. No one knows why.

Besides native artifacts, Cook and his crew collected sea otter pelts. When they later went to China they sold them for a fabulous price. When this became known, other ships set sail for the region. These “sealers”, as they were called, were soon making tremendous profits from the fur trade. The natives were necessary partners, so some of this wealth flowed into native hands. As a way of displaying this wealth the native elites commissioned more art.

Another factor spurred more art. As disease ravaged the native communities their population was drastically reduced. This compelled different tribal groups to band together in new communities. Since there was no status or “pecking order” in these communities, many were compelled to commission new poles, masks, and other artifacts. Ownership of such things was a time-honoured way of establishing rank. Moreover the production of these items was now much easier. The artists were now able to use metal rather than stone implements.

This led to a “golden age” of northwest native art. The famous nineteenth century photographs, showing villages with a forest of totem poles, are a result of this. But it also led to a tremendous surplus of goods. With numbers continuing to dwindle they soon had too few people to use all the ceremonial gear. The missionaries also had an effect. As natives were converted to Christianity the missionaries would no longer tolerate them owning such gear. They considered the masks, poles etc. as “heathen”, and compelled them to abandon them. The stage was set for a mass disposal of goods.

European collection of native artifacts was, until the mid-nineteenth century, mostly sporadic. They were not seen as art, but more in demand as fascinating curios. In the late 1850s this started to change. A young curator at the Smithsonian, Spencer Baird, was becoming aware of the value of collecting these artifacts. He and some others were beginning to see that native cultures were disappearing, and much more needed to be known about them. Moreover the physical evidence of their cultures, their art and artifacts, would disintegrate if not collected by institutions. The great era of museum collecting was beginning.

A man living in the Pacific Northwest, James Swan, had been sending natural history specimens to the Smithsonian. He was close to the native people, and ideally placed to collect native material. He asked the Smithsonian to do this, and Baird took him up on it. Beginning in the 1860s, Swan began sending them items. They were particularly aimed at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876. Swan did a fine job, assembling over five hundred items, including a large canoe. The exhibit was a great success. In the 1880s they sent him up the coast again. Baird particularly wanted more collecting done, as foreign collectors were appearing on the scene. He was very worried that important material would disappear into European hands.

Baird was right to be concerned. The Germans were doing some major collecting. The biggest threat came from the Museum fur Volkerkunde in Berlin. There the director of the museum, Adolf Bastian, had hired a man named Adrian Jacobsen . Jacobsen was a seasoned collector, and exceptionally able at his job. He acquired over two thousand items of very high quality, which covered the cultures comprehensively. If he had continued at this rate little would have been left.

Luckily for Baird the Germans moved on. But one young German watched all this with interest. Franz Boas had been hired by Adolf Bastian to process the new material. He was a geographer, but had become interested in anthropology. He had spent a year with the Eskimo on Baffin Island. Working with this material attracted him to another part of North America. His interest became even stronger when a troupe of Bella Coola dancers came to Berlin. He spent many hours with them, and began learning their language. He developed a longing to go to the northwest coast, and study the people and their culture.

Boas, in fact, wanted to leave Germany altogether. He found the intellectual life in Germany stultifying, and particularly disliked the anti-Semitism to which he was sometimes subjected. As well, he had a fiancée in New York. So he developed a plan to become a specialist on northwest coast culture, in the hopes of getting a job in New York. In 1886 he got his chance to go to the northwest coast. He arrived in Victoria in September 1886, and spent the autumn visiting native villages. He learnt a great deal, and collected many artifacts . When he left the coast he went to New York, where he tried to get a job at the American Museum of Natural History. He had no luck, but did get a job as an editor at Science magazine. Now that he had a job he married his fiancée, and settled in America.

Before he left for the northwest coast Boas had met Frederic Ward Putnam, the most prominent American anthropologist. Putnam was strongly impressed with Boas, and knew he should be working for the Museum. When the American Museum hired Putnam as head of Anthropology he was determined to hire Boas. In 1895 he was successful, and Boas joined the staff.

Boas knew that the Museum’s collection of northwest material was weak. The Smithsonian was no longer actively collecting in this field, but a major new competitor had emerged in the Field Museum of Chicago. Their new director, George Dorsey, was determined to acquire all the northwest material he could get. Boas had to act.

Boas developed a bold new plan for the Museum. He decided that a major anthropological expedition was needed to northwest North America and northeast Siberia. The idea was to send many scientists into the field over a six or seven year period. Boas would pick the people, and direct their research. This would powerfully advance scholarship on the region. He managed to persuade the president of the Museum, Morris Jesup, of the project’s value. Jesup agreed, and raised the money for it. In his honour it was named the Jesup North Pacific Expedition.

A major part of this expedition was to exhaustively collect among the northwest native people. Boas wanted both artifacts and information. He needed the right person, and luckily he found him. On a trip to the northwest coast in 1888 Boas had met a Kwakiutl man, George Hunt. The son of a Scottish trader and a Tlingit noblewoman, Hunt had grown up in the village of Fort Rupert. He was a full member of the Kwakiutl community and had insider access to information. He was also bilingual, and had the intellect to prepare reports. He had worked with other collectors, most notably Adrian Jacobsen, and so could anticipate some of Boas’ requests. Boas could not have found a better helper.

After some initial ethnographic training, Hunt got to work. And over the next few years he more than proved his worth. A large number of excellent items streamed to New York. This included some of the Museum’s most exceptional acquisitions. Occasionally Hunt understood an object’s value better than Boas. The Dzonokwa bowl, for example, was a large and very expensive serving dish used at feasts. When Boas complained of its cost, Hunt wrote to him of its importance. He said that if he and Boas were to describe its use, the world would understand its value.

Hunt became an important writer for the Museum. He collected many texts, which were published under his and Boas’ names. Occasionally Boas criticized his slowness. But he had to be wary, as other people knew his worth. George Dorsey of the Field Museum was always trying to inveigle him away. On occasion Boas had to warn Hunt not to talk to Dorsey.

In his ethnographic work Boas had concentrated on the Kwakiutl. He saw them as the dominant culture of the region, with the Nootka a pale shadow. So he told Hunt not to bother with the Nootka. But Hunt took a trip to Nootka Sound in 1901. He told Boas of excellent collecting opportunities there. Boas knew he had to collect from all cultures, so he agreed to Hunt’s trips. But it was far down his list of priorities.

Hunt, though, became more interested. Talking with some Nootka in 1902, he heard about a whalers’ shrine. Intrigued, he travelled the next year to see it. But he was rebuffed. The Nootka owners insisted on proper spiritual credentials. Hunt said he was a shaman, and proved it by curing a man. So the owners gave him access. With the time available he took one quick photograph.

That photograph changed everything. Boas was fascinated, and it is easy to see why. Even today it is a powerfully haunting picture. In the photograph, your view is partially blocked by bushes. Peering over them, you are looking into the dim light of a wooden shed. A few rays of sun brighten the scene. Rows of strange, human-like figures line the shed. These figures have no arms, and all have different expressions. At their feet is a row of skulls. A larger skull, on the right side, is shining in mid-air. A few of the figures, caught by the sun, shine out of the gloom. The whole scene is utterly strange and mysterious. It was like nothing Boas had ever seen.

Adding to the mystery is the secrecy that has always surrounded the shrine. Hunt recorded some information in 1904. But it took him nearly twenty years to find more. The problem was few tribe members knew very much. And when they did, they were unwilling to talk. The shrine was the property of the chief whaler, and only he could use it. Other tribe members were not even supposed to mention its existence. So Hunt could find few good informants.

What he did discover was that it was used in purification ceremonies before a hunt. The whaler needed to remove his scent, and absorb the power of his ancestors. One ritual, for example, involved strapping the mummy of his father to his back, then clutching a carved whale, and plunging into a nearby lake. Another was beating his skin raw with branches, then plunging again into the lake. The whaler would spend several days in the shrine. The skulls and the human-like figures undoubtedly added to its power.

Boas knew he must have this shrine. A note of insistence crept into his letters, as he urged Hunt to get it. But Hunt was facing trouble. By 1904 he had much easier access to the shrine. Now, though, two people were claiming ownership, and each insisted he had the exclusive right to sell. Hunt was able to bring these two together, and strike a deal. Even so, it could not leave the community immediately. The owners said it must stay, until the tribe departed for the sealing season. They feared an angry backlash.

By the end of 1904 the shrine was dismantled, and shipped to New York. And Hunt was well pleased. In his letter to Boas he said “It was the best thing I ever bought from the Indians”. But it proved a strange victory. It really marked a turning point in northwest collecting. A few months after this Boas resigned from the American Museum. He became a full-time university professor, and left the museum world entirely. With Boas’ departure Hunt became far less active as a collector. He had some clients, but became more involved in other projects. Dorsey left the Field Museum in 1906, and the whole market declined drastically. It carried on for some years, but essentially petered out by the 1930s.

After the shrine arrived in New York it disappeared from view. It was Boas’ project, and with him gone no one cared to make a display of it. A few pieces have been in exhibits over the years. But mostly it has been a century of storage.

Meanwhile, the fortunes of native people have been reviving in Canada. Since the 1960s their sense of pride and self-worth has been escalating. The various tribal groups have become determined to recapture their cultural heritage. This of course includes the Mowachaht people, the heirs to the Whalers’ Shrine.

In 1983 the Mowachaht began to consider a cultural centre, one that would include the Whalers’ Shrine. Museums were coming under pressure to return art and artifacts to their original native owners. In 1990 two other communities, Alert Bay and Cape Mudge, had their artifacts returned. With this in mind, the Mowachaht elders set off for New York.

Seeing the shrine was a powerful experience for them. But it left them divided. There were those who said it should come home, that it would revitalize the community. Others were not so sure. One said, “I don’t want to see it on display – it’s just too sacred”. Another said, “You don’t tamper with things you don’t understand....you don’t tamper with the Whalers’ Shrine”. For them the power still held.

The band as a whole, though, came to a decision. In November 1996 it voted to formally request its return. It also began planning a cultural centre at Yuquot, where the shrine and the band’s history could be told. Here things have temporarily stalled. But the momentum is there, and one day the centre will be built.

The only remaining question is, will the shrine ever be open to the public? That would have been unthinkable in the nineteenth century. But as times change so does the meaning of the shrine. Once it was restricted to the chief whaler. Now all band members may see it. And in the future all of us may be included. When the band comes to make a decision, it will know what to do. The shrine will help them as it always has. It will guide the way.

For further reading:

Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts by Douglas Cole.
Call number: 971.1300497 COL

The Yuquot Whalers’ Shrine by Aldona Jonaitis.                                                
Call number: 971.100497 JON

From The Land Of The Totem Poles: The Northwest Coast Indian Art Collection at the American Museum of Natural History by Aldona Jonaitis.                        
Call number: 704.0397 AME

Chiefly Feasts: The Enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch edited by Aldona Jonaitis.     
Call number: 971.100497 CHI
This last title is particularly useful for its essay on George Hunt.

Stephen Ruttan, Local History Librarian
June, 2010