The Meaning of U’mista
English Translation of The Meaning of U'mista
In earlier days, people were sometimes taken captive by raiding parties. When they returned to their homes, either through payment of ransom or by raid, they were said to have U’mista. The return of our treasures from distant museums and others is a form of U’mista. That is why our old people suggested that this building which houses the Potlatch Collection be called U’mista.
The Potlatch was illegal by Canadian Law from 1885 to 1951 under the Indian Act. Our people were charged and tried for attending Chief Dan Cranmer’s potlatch in 1921. Our chiefs signed a court document and promised not to potlatch until the law was changed, so that people would not be sent to prison. 20 chiefs refused to sign and were put to jail. The Potlatch Collection was taken from our people under this illegal agreement. Most of our treasures have returned home and are housed in the U’mista at Alert Bay and the Nuyumbalees at Cape Mudge.
The anti-potlatching law was never actually repealed through formal legislative action; rather it was merely deleted from the Canadian legal codes in 1951. The Kwakwaka'wakw had hoped that the Canadian government would make a stronger statement about the nature of the law by formally repealing it.
Return of the Collection
Once potlatching became legal again, things began to change. Chief Andy Frank, a Kwakwaka'wakw who lived at Comox, unsuccessfully petitioned the federal government to return the potlatch goods and to help establish a native museum to house them in Comox. Several other early attempts by native individuals to have the potlatch material returned were not successful.
The Kwakwaka'wakw began a concerted effort to have their treasures repatriated in the 1960's and ten years later, the Kwakwaka'wakw as a whole petitioned the Canadian Government to return their potlatch materials. The U'mista Cultural Society was formed on March 22, 1974 for the explicit purpose of negotiating the return of these items.
The Kwakwaka'wakw were able to demonstrate that Indian Agent Halliday had illegally pressured people to give up their regalia. The Board of Trustees of the Canadian National Museums Corporation eventually agreed and the process was begun for the return of these treasures to their rightful home. In addition, the federal government was forced to admit that they had not maintained the treasures in the correct manner. As part of the agreement for the return of the paraphernalia, two Kwakwaka'wakw museums were constructed to properly house the artifacts. Each family decided where their regalia was to be held and the combined Kwakwaka'wakw tribes were involved in the decisions and planning for both museums. One is located at Alert Bay and the other is at Cape Mudge on Quadra Island at the southern end of Kwakwaka'wakw territory. The Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Centre at Cape Mudge opened on July 29, 1979, and the U'mista Cultural Centre at Alert Bay opened on November 1, 1980.