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Decolonizing northern B.C.’s museum

Photo by Dave Milne, Courtesy The Exploration Place

Museums, by their very existence, are products of colonialism. The first museums were created as venues to house and display the collections of elite men who “acquired” curious items from their travels to gain a higher social status. Their intentions were not necessarily nefarious, and most collectors did intend to preserve the past. However, the rightful owners of cultural artifacts were often exploited, seen as obscure and strange, and in need of “civilization.” Many items, including human remains, were obtained unethically, stolen from their communities by colonizers. These items should have told the story of the group from which they came, but throughout history, those stories were largely ignored, untold, or told from the wrong perspective.

Though present-day museums’ legacies are often rooted in colonialism, there is a massive shift underway about the role of museums and how they do their work. How museums operate is changing by absolute necessity, following UNDRIP and the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action. Now is beyond the time for this change to happen, as the difficult conversations are finally being had and museums and their practices are increasingly being held under scrutiny.

It is not enough for one not to be racist; one must be anti-racist to effect change on a societal level. Similarly, it isn’t enough for museums to simply “talk the talk” when it comes to decolonization. Each museum must reflect on the audiences it intends to serve and how colonialism affects its governance, operations, collections, and exhibits. The entire museum industry must move into the future with redesigned best practices that de-center the colonialist view and instead look through the lens of colonized communities. Now is the time for decision-makers to overhaul the entire system and for museums to act as agents of social change.

The Exploration Place sits on a place of great historical and cultural significance, on the traditional unceded territory of the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation, who have occupied this place for at least 9,000 years. Lheidli T’enneh means “the people who live where the two rivers flow together,” a name that emphasizes the deep connections between culture and place.  Lheidli T’enneh Memorial Park encompasses the historic Lheidli T’enneh cemetery and is the site of the original village site of Lheidli. Our location itself underlines our responsibility to tell a more complete and inclusive story of our region’s history.

The Exploration Place has been working towards decolonization since the early 1990s. Part of this work has been filling in the historical blanks in our galleries. When it opened in 2001, the Ted Williams History Hall exhibited photographs and artifacts depicting early pioneer life in Prince George, the impact that settlers had on the landscape, and how the landscape shaped the community. What it failed to convey was how settler society affected the Lheidli T’enneh. Lheidli T’enneh culture was largely unrepresented, as was the Nation’s resiliency in keeping its culture alive in the face of colonial oppression. The Museum was missing valuable insight and a large piece of the regional story.

Acknowledging this omission resulted in two temporary exhibits that dove deeper into controversial topics like residential schools and the 1913 expulsion of the Lheidli T’enneh from their village site. This was the beginning of the expansion of trust between the Museum and the Lheidli T’enneh. This cooperation has led to award-winning exhibitions and a raised literacy level concerning the sometimes dark history of post-contact relationships.

The Museum has worked alongside the Lheidli T’enneh to protect and preserve their cultural assets, signing a Memorandum of Understanding in 2017. This MOU made the Museum the designated repository for Lheidli material culture. The Exploration Place stewards these objects in our collections vault, but the Lheidli T’enneh maintain complete ownership. The stories the materials tell belong to the Lheidli and are told from their perspective.

In 2017, the Exploration Place and the Lheidli T’enneh collectively received a Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Community Programming for the new permanent gallery, Hodul’eh-a: A Place of Learning.  This award recognized a shift in how a regional museum thinks and how it works with and represents the First Nation in whose territory it is located.

As part of reconciliation efforts, stimulating and facilitating the connection to Indigenous language is a role we embrace. As part of our efforts to help preserve an increasingly endangered language, we are working on several initiatives, including working with the Lheidli T’enneh on digitizing a large collection of Dakelh oral histories. So far, over 1000 cassette tapes holding hundreds of hours of language and cultural content have been digitized, preserving an invaluable source of cultural knowledge. We also created and hosted the in-house exhibit Mary Gouchie: Hubodulh’eh. The Lheidli T’enneh Elder believed that preserving a culture starts with language revitalization. Mary was instrumental in the recovery and documentation of the written and spoken Lheidli T’enneh dialect of Dakelh. As another small effort in language preservation, all the Latin species names in The Exploration Place’s galleries have been replaced with Dakelh terms.

We are currently working on several repatriation projects with the Lheidli T’enneh to return cultural items to their community and other Indigenous communities in the North. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions on in-person meetings and travelling, some of these projects have been put on hold. These projects remain of great importance and will be resumed as soon as possible. The pandemic has also impacted meetings of the Utsiyan ‘Utsoo Society, a non-profit Lheidli T’enneh Elders society that the Museum has helped initiate. The Society’s meetings have been hosted at The Exploration Place, and the Museum acts in a secretariat capacity, only assisting when appropriate and asked.

The Lheidli T’enneh hold a permanent position on our Board of Trustees to ensure the Nation influences museum decision-making. We have been doing ongoing work with the Lheidli T’enneh and School District 57’s Aboriginal Education department to develop curriculum-linked Indigenous cultural and historical programming and are looking at partnering on potential future projects. We are redeveloping the Nechako White Sturgeon Recovery Initiative display to incorporate both Dakelh language and related artwork from a local Lheidli T’enneh artist. Each project and step forward deepens the atmosphere of trust and understanding between the Museum and the Lheidli T’enneh, prompting them to reach out to us with new images, archival documents, oral histories, artifacts, and friendship. This has helped us compile a body of knowledge that will ultimately form the basis for a collective understanding of Lheidli T’enneh culture and contributions to this region from the past to today.

Decolonization is a process that comes down to relationships, respect, dialogue, and a shared responsibility. The Museum’s commitment to learning and teaching is ongoing. We recognize that friendships are reciprocal and must be continuously tended. The trust and understanding established between the Museum and the Lheidli T’enneh will continue to ensure that northern BC’s Museum is a place where cultural learning and practice honour traditions and celebrate our collective futures.

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