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Sacred masks return home

The boxes previously used by the McCord Stewart Museum to hold the masks. It’s strictly forbidden to photograph them.

Jessica Loft Cross had long known she’d one day become responsible for the care of a collection of Hatowi masks, just not when. It came to her in a dream in 1992, she said, but it would still take nearly 20 years before they found her, in 2011, at a vault at the McCord Stewart Museum in Montreal.

The Kahnawa’kehró:non has long dreamed of the sacred masks. It all started at the age of 12. She was inducted into the Hatowi Society in Akwesasne, where she lived with her mother at the time, soon after. Ever since then she’s taken the society’s mission of repatriating their masks to heart.

When she found out in 2011 through a Haudenosaunee Peoples course at Concordia University that the museum held 11 of the grandfather masks in their private collection, she took it upon herself to see them set free. Twelve years later, her dedication has finally paid off.

This Saturday, condoled chiefs and faithkeepers from the Mohawk Trail Longhouse were invited to the museum, arriving with a van ready to bring them south over the Mercier Bridge. A feast was then held at the Longhouse in Kahnawake to mark the occasion – before the masks were handed over to Hatowi Society members who brought them back home to Six Nations of the Grand River as well as Cattaraugus and Seneca in New York.

“We’re now finally able to set these masks free from their incarceration,” Loft Cross said. “These items were locked away in much of the same way that my grandparents were,” she added, saying the museum had assigned them numbers the same way children were at residential schools.

Loft Cross didn’t fully grasp the significance of the dream she had in March 1992 until later on in 2011, when she convinced Nicole Vallieres, then McCord’s director of collections and research department, to let her come see the masks.

“I had a dream of the Hatowis, and in the dream they were carved in all these kitchen cupboards that looked like a log cabin,” she said, reminiscent of those that were actually being used up until recently to hold them at the museum’s vault. She spoke to the late Myron Clute, a society member, who told her it was a sign.

“At the time I thought it was sort of far-fetched, that a whole bunch of masks were going to come to me,” Loft Cross said. She didn’t know it then, but at the time the 11 masks she would come to care for had just gone through a move from a temporary warehouse to the McCord’s current location on 690 Sherbrooke Street, which had been newly renovated that year to hold more artifacts.

“When they moved the collection to the McCord, it made the spirits that were dormant active. I guess you could say it woke them up,” she said. “The spirits wanted to be released.”

The masks had been held in private enclosed cases in the museum as they’re not intended to be seen outside of their ceremonial use. The photographing, illustrating, and exhibiting of them is also forbidden, according to a statement shared with the public by the Haudenosaunee Grand Council in 1995.

The 11 masks came into David Ross McCord’s collection, the museum’s founder, after being sold during the Great Depression. Five came from condoled chief William D. Tewaserakeh Loft, part of Loft Cross’ own lineage.

From 2017 onwards, she came to the museum vault on an annual basis to feed the masks, a ceremonial practice she says strengthens “their healing power” while also “fulfilling a commitment from the people to the Creator to care for the masks, and from the masks to the Creator to protect the people.”

It would still take many years however before Loft Cross found the right people to connect with to convince the museum, and McGill University, which was also previously responsible for the collection, to agree to repatriate them.

She said it wouldn’t have been possible without the intervention of faithkeepers Niioieren Eileen Patton and her husband Otistsakenra Charlie Patton. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s repatriation committee and its condoled chiefs got involved soon after.

“After 93 years away from the Hatowi Society these masks will now be able to attend ceremonies with our people, surrounded by our songs, dance, and food,” Loft-Cross said. “They can work to provide healing ceremonies in Haudenosaunee communities once again.”

Though the museum and McGill University had committed to repatriating the masks earlier this year, confusion still remained over who should have the final authority to sign off on the deal, Niioieren Patton said. That’s because the repatriation committee had yet to give the museum a clear answer. The committee itself declined to share comments for this story, saying its activities are secretive.

Tehanakarine Curtis Nelson, a bear clan chief of Kanesatake, was the one that ultimately intervened to take control of the situation, Niioieren said, which came following a visit of McCord’s leadership to the Longhouse earlier this fall. At the time they had come to discuss their upcoming wampum belt exhibit at the museum, which is still ongoing.

“He stood and he said, the repatriation committee works for him. He told them he wants the grandfathers to be released, and he showed them his wampum, and he told them his title,” Patton said. “He spoke as a confederacy chief to tell them that they had to come back now.”

Tears of joy

Otistsakenra was among the five that came to the museum to pick up the masks before their departure that Saturday morning. There was movement in the vault, and he felt it from the moment he picked up the first box.

“We put our hands on the boxes and they were vibrating and they were warm, and we could see the life in those boxes,” he said. “We spoke to them at the vault. We told them, ‘Now you’re going to go home and be free.’”

There were tears shed as soon as they walked through the doors of the Longhouse with them in hand.

“They didn’t even look at them yet,” Niioieren said. “Just the boxes coming in, people were in tears, because they could feel that hurt. The things that they saw, the way the Hatowi felt about what had happened to them.”

“It was a beautiful day,” said Nelson, who was among those carrying the masks. “We danced with our grandfathers, we fed them, we burned tobacco, and we released Jessica from her responsibilities.”

Anne Eschapasse, president and chief executive officer of the museum, said it was a privilege to have been invited to witness it all. “The celebration was emotional and deepened my understanding of how meaningful the homecoming of the Grandfathers was,” she shared in a written statement.

Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL) regional chief Ghislain Picard, also the chair of the museum’s board, attended as well, as did Celeste Pedri-Spade, McGill’s associate provost of Indigenous initiatives.

“As an Ojibwe Anishinaabekwe visual anthropologist who has advocated and advanced the repatriation of Indigenous material culture in my career, it was an honour to participate,” she also shared.

“The return of our sacred material relatives to their home community’s respective Indigenous nations is integral to the ongoing work of truth and reconciliation.”

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Miriam Lafontaine is a reporter with the Eastern Door. Her work has appeared in Le Devoir, CBC Montreal, CBC New Brunswick as well as the Toronto Star.

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Miriam Lafontaine is a reporter with the Eastern Door. Her work has appeared in Le Devoir, CBC Montreal, CBC New Brunswick as well as the Toronto Star.