Repatriation of Remains

Repatriation of Remains
(time 6:14)
Big Ideas:
Educators are encouraged to focus on four dominant themes throughout their planning and study of Repatriation of Remains. The themes integral to the story are 1) cultural law, 2) leadership, 3) homecoming, and 4) social justice. The following are suggestions and added information that will assist educators in meeting their learning objectives for their students.
Teachers are encouraged to read the summaries and reflections found in the book Not Extinct: Keeping the Sinixt Way that reference and relate to this story. Several important topics and concepts are mentioned, such as:
  • Cultural laws;
  • Smum iem;
  • Eva Orr, Elder and Matriarch;
  • Death as a journey;
  • Repatriation: an apology to the ancestors;
  • Hushed stories of repatriation – secrets, code of silence, anonymity;
  • Activism;
  • Complications, disruptions, and the imposition of politics;
  • The ‘what if’ question: What if the graves of your ancestors were disrespected?
An introduction to some of the following words and phrases may be needed for younger students prior to listening to the story: ancestral, archaeological site, occupation camp, protest, mission, cultural law, carcass, futile, activist, bad reputation, media coverage, tribal office, museum curator, repatriate.
Cultural Law:
Sinixt People are intimately and intricately connected with their homeland. As part of their deep connection with their traditional territory Sinixt People are culturally and spiritually required to follow explicit cultural laws and are answerable to those laws. Following their cultural laws is tantamount to experiencing and living a life of fulfilment and gratitude. The most important cultural law is the law of the land. The second most important cultural law states that one must live a life of service.
  • How might the cultural laws be interpreted and why would they be considered essential?
    • The law of the land: This law states that you must take care of the land, respect the land, and assume a responsibility to the land and to every being within it.
    • Living a life of service: Take care of your own responsibilities first, and then contribute to the community by helping and taking care of others.
    • Go back to the earth: One of the Sinixt cultural laws states that when you are done with your body, it must go back to the earth.
  • Consider the rules under which your school or classroom operates. Did you play a role in formulating your classroom rules? Were you allowed to agree, contribute ideas, dissent, or reach consensus? Are they working?
  • Why do we need laws? Consider the pros and cons of ‘anarchy’.
  • Discuss/debate the statements:
    • Freedom is being able to choose that for which you want to be responsible.
    • Question authority.
Elder Wisdom:
The true potential of an Elder is to have a wealth of experience and wisdom developed, evolved, and matured over time. The Sinixt have lived, shared, and survived through both times of joy and times of darkness: i.e. drought, famine, sickness, encroachment, good rains, abundant food, ceremonies, dispossession, diaspora, seasonal gatherings, legislated extinction, etc. A community relied heavily upon the wisdom and experience of their Elders for its everyday needs and survival. Their leadership formed a solid foundation on which the social structure of the tribe was based. Sinixt Elder Eva Orr is introduced in the story as the smum iem and Matriarch of the Sinixt. In her wisdom, Eva knew what had to be done and who she must ask to take on the work of bringing the ancestors home. For the ancestors to continue on their journey they need help. The cultural law had been broken for far too long.
  • Marilyn James was directed by Elder Eva Orr to help her ancestors. What information and inferences in the story supports Eva’s choice/decision? Consider the following:
    Marilyn James:
    • is Sinixt.
    • represents her people with dignity, integrity, and respect.
    • openly acknowledges her role as an activist.
    • is willing to take a stand for Aboriginal rights and social justice.
    • knows how important it is to plan, organize, schedule, work with others, and follow through to achieve results.
    • is not afraid of being involved in intense and extensive negotiations.
    • doesn’t back down when government officials pose a challenge.
    • asks appropriate questions to get information.
    • pushes for ‘on the record’ statements and commitments.
    • stays focused and avoids getting distracted, even while others around her are celebrating success.
  • What are leadership qualities? Consider the meaning behind the statement, Some of the greatest leaders we will hear nothing about. Older students could organize a leadership club to start their training as potential leaders.
  • Marilyn suggests it is neither helpful nor productive to work with people who have little integrity or bad reputations. Why would this be critical when working for her people?
  • A few years after the first reburial another box of remains was presented to the Sinixt. The man who returned the remains laughed nervously as he told Eva that he wasn’t sure all the bones were ‘native’. What do you think Eva’s response would have been? Actual Response: “That’s alright. We will take care of them too!” What does this show you about Eva, the Sinixt smum iem and Matriarch?
  • Think of ways Elders (seniors) are valued and respected within your family, school, community, and country?
Returning Home:
Marilyn James talks about the first night she spent at the occupation camp set up at the ancient Sinixt Village site in Vallican. She felt teased by the spirits all the first night.
It felt more like home than any place I’ve ever been before. It just felt like, oh, geez, I’m so comfortable here. It’s a great place. I was meant to be here. I just knew that.
  • Challenge students to think of ways Marilyn James would have connected with her ancestors at the village site. Some experiences are suggested here:
    • heard the Elders speaking the Sinixt language.
    • walked on the same paths as her ancestors;
    • washed at the same waterway;
    • stood next to the same pit-house depressions used to survive the cold winters;
    • witnessed the same landmarks as her ancestors;
    • saw the same kinds of plants and medicines growing there;
    • heard the sound of the same river rushing by;
    • visited the same burial grounds where her ancestors were buried;
    • stopped to rest in the same places.
  • Marilyn’s experiences at the ancient village site would not only be an emotional tie to the land, but the land itself would be a tie to the communal past, present, and future. In other words, she was experiencing a connection to her roots and an awareness of her surroundings as “home”. Why might a return to one’s homeland be a profound experience? Think also of…
    • …veterans returning to the scene of a battle in which they were involved.
    • …accident victims or their family members returning to the scene of the accident.
    • ….members of the Jewish faith or holocaust survivors returning to the concentration camps at Auschwitz or Dachau.
  • Imprinted memory, ‘grey matter’ memory, or psychological DNA is relevant to this issue of returning home. For further reference imprinted memory will be covered in more detail in the story called Why Mosquitos Bite People.
Caravan to Victoria:
In the fall of 1990 an assortment of people from both Native and settler backgrounds formed the caravan as it left the Vallican occupation camp and ancient village site heading towards Victoria. The mission was to demand the return of the six Sinixt ancestors removed from the Vallican burial grounds. Here is a statement by one of the participants:
Marilyn Burgoon and I were residents of Vallican and were invited to join the caravan as Vallican community supporters. Along the route we gathered in a prayer circle every morning before we all headed off with an air of intense seriousness. As we stopped along the way at tribal offices to hold signs and disseminate information, several people were so moved by the story that, with permission, they joined the caravan. The caravan doubled in size before reaching the outskirts of Victoria. We were in awe as a high flying bald eagle led us from the outskirts of Victoria to our final destination at the museum.
There were nearly 50 people of different faiths, races, tribes, ages, and backgrounds who stood in front of the RBCM with one purpose: to demand and witness the return of the Sinixt ancestors. The visitors and tourists at the museum were intrigued with the long braids, moccasins, and hand drums and confronted us with questions, comments, and non-stop in-your-face camera-clicking. It was a huge distraction to the point that we couldn’t hear directions being given by the Sinixt representative. She literally had to yell “Close in!! SHOULDER TO SHOULDER!!!” to edge out the tourists and museum visitors until finally we managed to form a tight-knit circle for information exchange.
(Contributed by J. Heywood)
  • Road trips usually involve a lot of preplanning. Recall some of the steps taken to ensure a successful road trip: an initial Sinixt meeting, discussions, scheduling, arrangements for accommodation, fundraising to cover costs, consensus-building, arranging for media coverage, spreading the word, deciding on and inviting witnesses, ferry schedules, negotiating and arranging a meeting with officials, networking, and so on.
  • Paul Tennant, a history prof from UBC, once said that if people knew all the facts, the whole story, and the context of what really happened to First Nations people, they would have a better understanding of the Aboriginal rights movement and how to be more supportive. Do you think this is true where the people at the museum were concerned?
  • Some math and mapping exercises could be assigned in connection to the caravan.
  • The power of asking the right question: Explain how the caravan ended up setting another mission in progress.
Reburial/Death as a Journey:
Indigenous People generally look at death as a transition rather than a time of darkness. It is more of a joyous occasion viewed as a rebirth. We do not know what caused the passing of the six Sinixt people whose graves were disturbed at the Vallican village site. All we know is the remains were unearthed, boxed, removed from their homeland, and sent to the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, British Columbia. At the museum the remains of the six Sinixt ancestors were most likely stored on shelves after examination by ‘experts’. These experts were not enlightened through their examinations and calculations as to the cultural laws of the Sinixt People; nor were they made aware of their role in breaking those cultural laws.
  • The caravan achieved its goal and the remains of the six Sinixt ancestors were returned to the Vallican village site and occupation camp. They returned to their home, their village, their people, their roots.
  • Community involvement: Some members of the Vallican community worked hard to support the Sinixt in their return to their ancient village site. They had stood in protest against the building of a new road at the site, opposed the opening of an illegal gravel pit which destroyed the most ancient part of the village, organized a community watch to help with security, brought food and miscellaneous supplies to the camp, organized a fundraiser to support the caravan to Victoria, and more. It was decided that the reburial would be open to the community and many community members attended with reverence and understanding.
Teachers of Dangerous Memories – Teaching for Human Rights, Social Justice, and Tolerance:
When Paul Tennant, PhD, political scientist professor who specialized in B.C. politics and Aboriginal issues, was interviewed by CBC during the Oka crisis he issued a profound statement. Professor Tennant stated his firm belief that people would feel, believe, and act differently re: Aboriginal rights if all the facts were known and the true (and brutal) histories of the First Peoples had been learned. In other words, education is the key to eliminating racism borne of fear and misunderstanding. Educators are encouraged to become teachers of dangerous memories, i.e. memories that challenge the status quo!
  • If all the facts were known and the true story of the Sinixt was understood:
    • … you think the tourists at the museum would have been more understanding, acted differently, or been more respectful?
    • .….would the remains of the six Sinixt ancestors have been disturbed and removed from their homeland and stored on shelves in a museum?
    • …..would the Sinixt have been declared extinct?
    • …..would Marilyn James have had to ask the question about more remains, demanding the negative response be put in writing?
  • Older students could research an article called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, by Peggy McIntosh. This is an excellent article that lists 50 examples or hidden benefits of privilege in everyday life for white people. Consider the concept that some responsibility is involved with having privilege. But what if you don’t appreciate the privileges you have or are unaware that you even have them? Several websites are available to support teaching tolerance.
  • “I’ll have that in writing.” This was an extremely important statement as it inadvertently set another mission in progress. Why do you think the museum curator would not put a statement in writing re: more remains being held at the museum? Government officials have to be very careful what they put in writing. Often lawyers are involved as those documents become official legal statements considered to be ‘on the record’.
  • Questioning is an important skill to develop for journalists, teachers, officials, activists, CEOs and others. It goes far beyond the simple who, what, where, when, why, and how questions. What questions would you like to ask Marilyn James about that first night at Vallican? Be sure your question is worded such that you are gathering meaningful information and not just for the entertainment factor.
There are many political issues surrounding repatriation; however, to avoid drawing energy and focus away from this powerful story of repatriation and reburial, we have decided to limit the inclusion of politics to a minimum. Recall the Sinixt First Nation is the first Aboriginal group in what we now refer to as Canada to repatriate the remains of their ancestors. They were in unprecedented territory on many fronts, including in the realm of political and bureaucratic red tape.
  • For further information and clarification regarding the political issues impacting Sinixt First Nation refer to the section under the heading “politics” in the story called Lemon Creek.
  • Students will probably be unfamiliar with the term Oka Crisis. It was a tense situation between the Mohawk People and the government, including the military, in 1990. Older students could research this topic as an assignment.
Curricular Competency: (developed by the teacher creating the lesson plan in collaboration with the student(s) receiving the knowledge)
Creative Thinking:
Critical Thinking:
Positive Personal & Cultural Identity:
Personal Awareness & Responsibility:
Social Responsibility:


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