Dartmouth Repatriates Headdress to Gitxaała Nation

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The ceremony was held on the Dartmouth Green at the start of Powwow.

Gitxaała matriarch Margaret Hill speaks wearing headdress.
Margaret Hill, wearing her ancestor’s Gitxaała Nation headdress, speaks at the repatriation ceremony on Saturday. (Photo by Julia Levine ’23)

Dartmouth officials marked the start of the 51st annual Dartmouth Powwow on Saturday by repatriating a headdress from the late 19th century to a delegation from the Gitxaała Nation in western Canada.

“Today, I have the honor to return, on behalf of the College, a headdress owned by Solomon Brown to representatives from the Gitxaała Nation, including one of his descendants, who I’m delighted made the trip from the northern coast of British Columbia to be here with us today,” President Philip J. Hanlon ’77 said in the ceremony on the Dartmouth Green.

The cedar bark headdress, lined with fabric, had been owned by Brown, a Gitxaała chief, and was initially obtained by Axel Rasmussen, a school superintendent in Alaska who collected Native American cultural artifacts about 100 years ago from Kitkatla, a village where the Gitxaała Nation is based on the north point of Dolphin Island.

After Rasmussen’s death in 1945, the headdress was transferred to Earl Stendahl and later acquired by art dealer Doris Melzer, who donated the headdress to what is now Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art in 1963.

President Hanlon handed the headdress to Ernie Bolton, a member of the Gitxaała delegation, who placed it on the head of Margaret Hill, a matriarch of the Raven clan within the Gitxaała and a lineal descendant of Brown’s.

Hill fought back tears as she addressed the crowd.

“I’m happy to be here today to witness the return of my grandfather’s headpiece. Thank you to everyone. I’d like to thank the people behind me for letting us take it back and for looking after it all these years. I am just happy. My tears are happy tears,” she said.

Bolton addressed the crowd in both Sm’algyax and English, as did Hill, and drum and dance representatives from the Gitxaała Nation also performed during the ceremony.

“I just wanted to get up here on behalf of the Gitxaała Nation to really express our gratitude to each and every one of you for being here to witness this event,” Bolton said. “I want to say thank you very much on behalf of our delegation.”

The repatriation process began in 2021 when representatives from the Gitxaała Nation inquired about the headdress while conducting research for the Gitxaała Longhouse and Cultural Centre Project, according to Jami Powell, the associate director for curatorial affairs and curator of Indigenous art at the Hood Museum.

A cedar bark headdress
The cedar bark headdress lined with fabric dates to the late 19th century. (Courtesy Hood Museum of Art) 

The headdress, which had never been used for exhibition or teaching at the Hood Museum, was one of only a few objects the Gitxaała were able to identify that was linked to someone from their community.

“It has been clear from the beginning of this project that this is simply the right thing to do. Furthermore, I think everyone who attended the ceremony has a better understanding of the importance of this work and how meaningful it can be,” Powell says.

In his remarks, Hanlon said the repatriation is part of a larger initiative to address issues of historical accountability across the institution. Last year, for instance, Dartmouth repatriated papers of Samson Occom to the Mohegan Tribe, and earlier this spring apologized after discovering that Native remains, which had been thought to be non-Native, were used in its teaching collection.

“This is difficult but necessary work that provides restorative opportunities to the tribal nations and other historically excluded communities,” Hanlon said during Saturday’s repatriation ceremony. “Although this work reminds us of the painful legacies we have inherited, we firmly believe that if done with care and consideration, it can help create a greater sense of community and belonging to our campus.”

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