SKIDEGATE, British Columbia – To the standing ovations of two communities,
a documentary about the repatriation of ancestral remains has received wide
acclaim within the Haida Nation.
“Stolen Spirits of Haida Gwaii” showcases the effort by this tribe, which
lives in the remote islands in northwestern British Columbia, to prepare
for the return of 160 bodies that were expropriated from their graves
during scientific expeditions a century ago. The video journey leads its
viewers from ancient and abandoned villages on the Queen Charlotte Islands,
known locally as the Haida Gwaii or “Islands of the People,” to the
crowning and emotional moments of members from the Haida Repatriation
Committee (HRC) seeing their ancestors in a vault of a Chicago museum.
Andy Wilson of the HRC has experienced the joys and frustrations during the
better part of a decade in seeing more than 400 remains come back home who
were otherwise locked away for decades in foreign storage units. Even with
the recent success the Haida have encountered, the disturbance of the
deceased and the histories that have been lost have always tempered any
celebrations. Wilson said this film, besides capturing the historical
element of the event, deeply respects the local culture.
“He [director Kevin McMahon] has a full understanding of what it’s all
about. Not just repatriation but the potlatch procedures of the Haida
Nation and that comes through in his video,” said Wilson about the movie’s
premiere on May 19, shown again the following evening prior to an
international repatriation conference on the Haida Gwaii.
The Toronto-based McMahon encountered this story while on the Queen
Charlotte Islands when filming another project in 2002. Attending a
community seafood dinner that was a repatriation fundraiser in Skidegate
(population 700), McMahon met Wilson and immediately the director was
intrigued and recognized how cinematography might be an appropriate medium
in telling about the Haida’s efforts.
Yet, unlike all of his other documentaries, McMahon stated this project
required the most diplomacy and negotiations. Immediately, there was
concern by the Haida that if, as a non-Native, he should be the one
coordinating this video endeavor.
“There was such a cultural sensitivity that the process of coming to an
agreement was more involved towards approaching people to be subjects of a
documentary,” McMahon said.
Numerous letters to both the Skidegate and the Old Massett committees, plus
two trips to the West Coast in the year prior to filming, alleviated such
concerns by the Haida. The negotiations also solidified the boundaries of
what could be filmed and how interviews were to be conducted.
As “Stolen Spirits” begins in Chicago’s Field Museum, the scene quickly
changes to the serenity of the Haida Gwaii. From the aerial photography of
the tree-filled mountains to sea birds soaring, the tone is immediately
Without the use of third person narration, McMahon pointed out he didn’t
require anyone else to tell this history when the Haida were so eloquent.
Nika Collison, an HRC member and one of 30 who traveled to Chicago in
October 2003, explained why this First Nation treats those who have passed
on with so much respect.
“When your body no longer functions and you’re gone, your spirit or essence
takes at least a year to get to the other side,” she said on film. “So to
disturb that final place, you can really mess up that poor spirit.”
The use of black-and-white photographs of Haida villages and totem poles
permits a sense of place and time and more importantly, an idea of loss
when the bodies were stolen in the name of science during trips conducted
in 1897, 1901 and 1903. The belief then was the Haida, whose numbers
dwindled to 500 significantly due to smallpox, were on the verge of
extinction and whose remains could be studied as a race.
One of the strengths of the documentary is the balance McMahon delivers
between the understandably emotional and reserved presence exhibited by the
Haida against the historical perspective of why these bodies were taken.
Several members of the anthropology department of the Field Museum
presented reasons why, as abhorrent as the practice is perceived in today’s
society, grave looting was accepted in the scientific community of the late
“To sort of fulfill this desire to study race, physical anthropology was
very focused as to how one group of people differed from another,” said
collections manager William Pestle on “Stolen Spirits.”
It’s very easy to feel sympathy for the Haida while vilifying museum
representatives for continuing to possess human remains and cultural
artifacts. McMahon however had no intentions of showing the Field Museum as
cold or unfeeling.
“When they represent their profession, there is an over-reliance on
rationality,” McMahon noted about the scientists’ responses. “That was how
the relationship evolved as the scientists were cordial with the Haida from
the beginning and only through a period of time were they able to let down
The film’s most poignant moment occurred when the repatriation committee
entered the basement of the museum to view the ancestral remains. Of the
sound that was captured, the pictures otherwise spoke for themselves as
many of the Haida were overwhelmed with tears.
Ultimately, the purpose of the trip to Chicago was to address the 160
bodies for the journey home. This meant ceremonial preparations that
naturally would quell the curiosity of the viewer as it did with McMahon.
However, as explained on film by a Haida member, and as discussed before
filming began, this was a sacred process and therefore the transfer room
was unavailable to the public and the camera crew.
In compensation, McMahon again allowed the prominent use of Haida
voiceovers. Throughout the repatriation process, the Haida incorporated the
image of the butterfly to represent “a wandering spirit” that signifies the
restlessness of their ancestors’ souls. Coincidentally, a butterfly
collection in the museum became a natural substitute for any scenes inside
the transfer room.
“He was able to work around this really well and with the butterflies,
nobody has been able to do that,” Wilson said in complimenting McMahon.
“Stolen Spirits of Haida Gwaii” runs 74 minutes and will make its
television premiere on History Television in Canada on July 14. Following
this debut, McMahon plans to distribute the documentary to other channels
and museums worldwide.
“Hopefully Aboriginal communities can get a chance to see this in whatever
means because this is most valuable to other communities intending in
repatriating and don’t know how the process works,” McMahon said.