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Shíshálh ancestors exhibit comes home

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Summer student Salina Schmidt poses with the Tems Swiya Museum’s very special exhibit, a digitized reconstruction of shíshálh ancestors, which opened in Sechelt July 4. Donna McMahon photo

“I think I’ve found where I’m supposed to be,” says Raquel Joe, Curator and Cultural Interpreter of the Tems Swiya Museum in Sechelt.

Joe, who has worked in many roles for the shíshálh Nation, has been museum curator for a year and is enjoying the extraordinary opportunity to tell the story of her people through a ground-breaking national exhibition, the first of its kind in North America.

The project was a collaboration between the shíshálh Nation, the National Museum of History in Ottawa, and the University of Toronto. By studying the remains of five shíshálh ancestors and using state-of-the-art forensic facial reconstruction technology, the faces of Sechelt people from 3,700 years ago have been brought to life.

The exhibit is taking place simultaneously in Ottawa and Sechelt, and has drawn international attention, with articles in Canadian Geographic, National Geographic, the Smithsonian Magazine, and other media.

The project is based on the discovery in 2010 of five shíshálh ancestors—a 50-year-old male, a 19-to-23-year-old female, two brothers aged 20-25, and one infant. Typical burial sites in BC have a few hundred beads. This one had more than 350,000, suggesting that the deceased were of very high status and came from a prosperous and sophisticated culture. The smallest of the beads are just two and a half times the size of a grain of sand, and thought to have been woven into the woman’s hair.

The digitized recreation of their faces, displayed life-sized in the museum, shows minute details of their hair and clothing and is subtly animated, so the ancestors blink and breathe.

For a small museum, Tems Swiya (which translates as Our World) is extraordinary and unique. It has official depository status for artifacts and is a full member of the BC Museums Association, so it can receive and display artifacts excavated within the traditional shíshálh territory—an area that stretches along the coast from Chapman Creek to Saltery Bay and up Sechelt Inlet to the head of Jervis Inlet.

Tems Swiya’s most exceptional artifact is a prehistoric stone sculpture known as the Grieving Mother—a mortuary stone commemorating the wife of a chief who drowned herself when their only son was killed.

Considered one of the finest pieces of prehistoric sculpture in Canada, it is estimated to be as much as 3,000 years old. It was returned to the shíshálh Nation from the Museum of Vancouver in 2010.

An archeology team – two thirds of them band members – is currently working on a site at Snake Bay, says Joe. Pointing to the map of the shíshálh territory, she notes that over a hundred archaeological sites have been located in Salmon Inlet and Narrows Inlet alone.

Tems Swiya’s mission – to tell the story of a people through their artifacts – is only beginning.

Tems Swiya is open Monday to Friday from 9am to 4:30pm at 5555 Sunshine Coast Hwy. Admission is by donation.

Donna McMahon

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