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North Island nation working to reclaim historic masks for Big House opening

A North Island First Nation is working to reclaim historic masks from the Royal BC Museum for a week-long potlatch planned next summer.

In a statement Friday, reported by the Victoria Times-Colonist, hereditary chiefs for the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Nation say they plan to reclaim 17 masks and other treasures, to be stored and displayed their new Big House near Port Hardy, currently under construction since last year. It’s expected to be completed in early summer.

The potlatch planned to celebrate completion will be the first in more than 60 years. Potlatches were banned in Canada until 1951.

Museum acting CEO Tracey Drake says in a statement that the museum is working with the nation to return historical items. They have been in negotiations over the masks since 2018.

In 1964, the nation moved from its traditional territory in Smith and Seymour Inlets to the Tsulquate reserve near Port Hardy. They have not had a big house for community gatherings since.

According to the nation, the big house is a sacred place for potlatch ceremonies and traditional dance. Potlatches mark important events like marriages, naming of children, or mourning the passing of a loved one. The big house is also a place for traditional ways of governance. For example, hereditary chiefs can settle disputes over claiming a title or feuds between families.

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