Opinion

The Joy of Giving Back

Today a stolen six-ton petroglyph returns home after 86 years in Vancouver. Here's the story.

By Joan Seidl, 12 Jun 2012, TheTyee.ca

Original location of returned petroglyph

The petroglyph's original site was determined by matching old photos to ridge lines in Stswecem'c Xgat'tem territory.

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For many years, I squinted at murky black and white photographs taken in 1926 showing a great petroglyph-covered rock as it was hauled away from the Fraser River somewhere in the interior. I despaired that we would ever know the rock's original location with any certainty. It seemed that removing the rock back in 1926 had been utter folly. It felt against nature to even consider hauling a six ton rock from the interior of B.C. and move it to Vancouver. But driven by compulsion and arrogance (to my understanding), people did it, and after spending many years in Stanley Park, the great rock now sits at the Museum of Vancouver, where I work.

For the last 20 years, the huge rock has lain in the museum's interior courtyard, its many petroglyphs slowly disappearing under a layer of moss and lichen. Next week, it will be repatriated to Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nations and taken back home to the Fraser River at Churn Creek Protected Area, about two hours east of Clinton.

The great rock has been on a long journey. In 1925, a gold prospector in the Cariboo named H.S. Brown came across the petroglyph partially hidden in a grove of cottonwood trees when he was fetching water near Crow's Bar along the Fraser River. Brown was an admirer of the Mohawk poet Pauline Johnson who was buried in Stanley Park after her death in 1913. His original plan was to sell his placer gold claim and use the proceeds to place the stone by her grave in Stanley Park. When Brown was unable to sell his claim, the chair of the Vancouver Park Board, W.C. Shelly, stepped in.

Shelly wanted the petroglyph in order to add it to the collection of totems poles, house posts, and other First Nations art that he was assembling from throughout B.C. in order to create a faux "Indian Village" in Stanley Park. (Shelly was apparently indifferent to the fact that the government was trying to evict the real Coast Salish settlements in the park at the time).

One long drag

Moving the rock (dubbed the "Cariboo Monolith" by news reporters) was a massive undertaking. Shelly hired Frank Cross to bring the rock out over land. Cross worked with a team of 10 horses. It took a month to drag the rock up the 3,000 foot ascent from the bank of the Fraser River. Then, taking advantage of winter snow, Shelly's team hauled the rock overland to the Pacific Great Eastern railhead and then down to Vancouver, where it was placed in Stanley Park, near the totem poles. Increasing incidents of vandalism led the Park Board to ask the museum to look after the rock in the early 1990s. In 1992, the petroglyph was moved from Stanley Park to the museum's interior courtyard.

Original location of returned petroglyph

The petroglyph in 1926, before being hauled to Stanley Park.

In 2010, Bruce Miller, an anthropology professor at UBC who also chairs MOV's Collections Committee, brought the petroglyph to the attention of the committee. Bruce explained the contemporary understanding of petroglyphs as highly sacred objects that are integral to their original sites (the power is in the place as well as the rock), and encouraged MOV to work towards repatriation. Bruce brought in archaeologist Chris Arnett who specializes in B.C. petroglyphs. We shared the documentation we had with Chris. After researching, Chris advised us that we ought to speak with the Canoe Creek Indian Band, now known as Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation, from whose territory the petroglyph had been taken without permission in 1926.

Cleaning a petroglyph

MOV's conservator Carol Brynjolfson, at right, led process of cleaning the petroglyph of moss and lichen before returning it to the Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation.

In Sept. 2010 Chief Hank Adam and Phyllis Webstad of the Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation visited the MOV to see the petroglyph and meet with our staff. In October, the First Nation formally requested repatriation. After working through the process required by MOV's Collections Policy, the MOV's Board of Directors voted to repatriate the petroglyph in March 2011 -- lightning speed in the museum business.

'Sister rocks'

Meanwhile members of the Stswecem'c Xgat'tem scouted the banks of the Fraser to find the rock's original location. On a glorious day in late Aug. 2011, Chief Adam led us to the exact spot where the rock had stood. It was a powerful experience -- the Fraser rushing by, the sun beating down, velvety hills all around. Even the skeptics among us (me) were convinced when we held up the historical photographs of the petroglyph move in 1926 and matched up the silhouettes of the mountains, ridge for ridge. And then, standing there, Chief Adam said, "Look down." At our feet were more rocks with petroglyphs -- as the Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation say, "sister rocks." This was the place.

Petroglyph ceremony

Ceremony held at Museum of Vancouver yesterday, June 11, beginning repatriation journey of petroglyph back to the Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation.

That brings us to today. We at the museum were invited to join Phyllis Webstad, repatriation coordinator with chief and council of the Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation, at the ceremony yesterday, June 11, that began the rock's journey home. Over the past weeks, MOV's conservator Carol Brynjolfson has carefully removed the moss and lichen. Today, Pro-Tech industrial movers will move the rock through the museum and on to a waiting truck for transport to Churn Creek. Then on Wednesday, June 13, it will be welcomed home by the Stswecem'c Xgat'tem First Nation at a ceremony at Churn Creek to which all are invited. I will be there, filled with joy to see this important work to completion.  [Tyee]

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