Newspaper article The Canadian Press

B.C. Families Launch Desperate Search for Historic and Sacred Cedar Masks

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

B.C. Families Launch Desperate Search for Historic and Sacred Cedar Masks

Article excerpt

B.C. families in search for masks


VANCOUVER - For the Hamilton and Sayers families, the two cedar masks depicting male and female serpents and known as hinkeets to the Hupacasath culture of Vancouver Island were among the most sacred of possessions.

Accompanied by shawls and even a specific dance, the masks were born of royal roots and for more than 100 years had been passed down the generations for their safe keeping -- until they were sold unbeknownst to family members at an auction at the beginning of November.

The families say one of their own, a relation entrusted with their safe keeping, was behind the sale, and now they're pleading with whomever may have bought them for a chance to negotiate their return.

The family member responsible for the masks was out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

"These things are considered to be some of our very highest property, and they would be covered by our very highest laws, and those laws have consequences to them," said Wawmeesh G. Hamilton, a member of the Hupacasath First Nation and a journalist.

"So it's an egregious offence."

Hamilton said the masks sold for about $4,000 and $22,500 at the auction, a sale he only learned about when he was tipped off by a cousin who'd been attending the same event.

Judith Sayers, a former elected chief for the Hupacasath who lectures in law and business at the University of Victoria and is a first cousin to Wawmeesh, said she tried but was unsuccessful in getting the masks removed from bidding or even finding out who bought them.

The auctioneer, Seahawk Auctions, declined to comment.

The origin of the masks is with the Ucluelet First Nation, a band that calls the west coast of Vancouver Island home.

"Only members of chiefs families could use these things," said Hamilton.

"They were considered a very high and sacred item."

So sacred were the masks that they were used infrequently, and only during potlatches, memorials and naming ceremonies, said Hamilton who noted protocol even dictates how they were to be stored. …

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