The last time the Hamilton family saw their sacred masks in person they were being danced across the floor at a memorial potlatch in Port Alberni, British Columbia. The next time they saw the masks, they were pictured on an auction website on November 4th with a large ‘SOLD’ sign stamped across them.
The Hinkeets (sea serpent) masks are among the most sacred items within Nuu-chah-nulth culture. Only chiefs or high-ranking families own them, and train their sons to dance them according to ancient protocols.
Jessie Hamilton was royalty: a Ha-kuum (queen) within the Hupacasath First Nation. Two of her most prized cultural possessions were a pair of Hinkeets masks: a male and female painted bright red, white, black, and blue, estimated at more than a century old.
The pair of Hinkeets masks came from the Ucluelet First Nation, from Jessie’s mother upon her marriage to Dan Watts of Hupacasath, and became officially hers after her mother’s death in 1967.
When Jessie died at the age of 84 in 2008, her will specified that all of her “household possessions” would go to her youngest daughter, Joy. But according to Joy’s older brother Wawmeesh George Hamilton, who is now forced to deal with the cultural storm swirling around the sacred Hinkeets masks, there’s a big difference between personal possessions and family cultural possessions.
“If you were to even hint at the idea of selling those masks, my mother would have slapped the taste right out of your mouth,” said Wawmeesh, who sometimes freelances for Indian Country Today Media Network. “They are not chattel to be bought and sold; they are our family histories over thousands of years, and our place within Hupacasath and Nuu-chah-nulth culture.”
Wawmeesh learned of the auction sale through a cousin, who happened to be at a Vancouver auction of Northwest Coast Native Arts. The cousin recognized the distinctive masks as belonging to the Hamilton family, and immediately called Wawmeesh, who in turn called family member and well-known lawyer Judith Sayers for help.
two then phoned Seahawk Auctions in Vancouver and tried to have the sale halted, but were told the seller had produced a legal will proving ownership of the masks and the sale would go on.
“We tried to explain to them that there is a difference between private property and family cultural property, but their heads were full of dollar signs instead of sense,” Wawmeesh said. “The art auction is a game played by rich people who don’t care about cultures or correctness.”
In the end, the male mask sold for $22,500 and the female mask is believed to have sold for $4,000. The only information Wawmeesh has been able to gather about the buyer is that his given name might be Ivan, and that one or both masks are still in British Columbia.
Hupacasath carver Rod Sayers has offered to carve a replica pair, and plans to offer them first to the buyer of the original masks before giving them to the family as a replacement.
According to Wawmeesh, his 45-year-old younger sister Joy moved to Goa, India with a boyfriend two months ago. All attempts to contact her have failed. She has not returned phone calls or e-mails, and Wawmeesh said she will not be welcomed back by her family or her First Nation.
“There’s no ‘I’m sorry’ here. There’s no going back,” said Wawmeesh. “She can’t carry a (traditional Hupacasath) name, title, or participate culturally now. Our family will go on, but it will be minus one,” he said.
Seahawk Auctions have also refused to return calls on this matter, and Wawmeesh said police are now involved.
“The auction should have pulled them. They should have done cultural due diligence,” said Wawmeesh. “These masks are the highest of cultural property on the west coast here, and they should have recognized that and realized there would be an issue with those masks,” he said. “I would like to see the issue brought to court so communal property issues could be formalized.”
Wawmeesh has resigned himself to the loss. The loss of the masks is almost as painful as the loss of his mother, and now the loss of his sister—and future generations will be deprived of seeing the ancient Hamilton family Hinkeets danced at potlatches and important events.
“The ancient songs and dances will still be performed with the new masks, but they’ll be like a prosthetic after an amputation,” said Wawmeesh. “I’m sure the replacement masks will be beautiful but they’re not that pair.”