A hushed group of people, nearly four dozen strong, slipped into the American Museum of Natural History early Monday, ahead of the crowds. Their cheeks were smeared with rust-colored dye, red and white woven bands encircled their heads, the men wore ceremonial vests and the women were wrapped in shawls, fringed with red.
They were at the end of a roughly 3,000-mile journey that has, in its way, taken years. Unlike the thousands of fidgety schoolchildren and harried parents that filled the museum’s halls to view its storied exhibits on Monday, these 46 visitors were there for an altogether different purpose: to take their ancestors home.
“Our people are humans; we aren’t tokens,” said Chief Vern Jacks, who heads the Tseycum First Nation, a tiny native tribe from northern Vancouver Island, in British Columbia.
With the museum’s full consent, the Tseycum tribe will be repatriating the remains of 55 of their ancestors to Canada this week. On Monday morning, in a quiet first-floor auditorium away from the museum’s crowds, tribe members performed an emotionally charged private ceremony over the 15 sturdy plastic boxes that contained the remains.
The ceremony lasted two and a half hours, and the tribe members and elders from related tribes prayed, spoke, wept and sang, saying they wanted to soothe their ancestors’ spirits and prepare them for a return trip from a journey that, the tribe leaders say, should never have happened at all.
“And then we said, ‘Now we’re going to take you home,’ ” Chief Jacks said, moments after the ceremony ended. “These people we are taking here have knowledge, respect, wisdom,” he added. “We live by today’s society, but our history walks with us.”
The remains, guessed to be at least 2,000 years old, have been at the museum for about 100 years but have almost certainly never been on display, said Steve Reichl, a museum spokesman. The museum has repatriated other remains to Canada at least once before, in 2002, according to Mr. Reichl, and remains have also been returned numerous times to American Indians.
Mr. Reichl said the museum worked to streamline the Tseycums’ trip. “The end result was a successful visit,” he said, “and a moving ceremony.”
For the Tseycum people, Monday’s events marked a singular culmination of years of painstaking, and painful, detective work.
The tribe’s quest to reclaim their ancestors began seven years ago, when Chief Jacks’s wife, Cora Jacks, found documents and papers relaying the life story of a 19th- and early 20th-century archaeologist, Harlan Ingersoll Smith. Ms. Jacks said she learned that Mr. Smith had robbed the graves of Tseycum ancestors, who were buried on Vancouver Island under giant boulders, and sold them to major American museums, and most likely others worldwide.
Mrs. Jacks grew nearly obsessed with tracking down the remains, Chief Jacks said, poring over books, researching government archives and spending late nights searching for clues online.
Mr. Smith’s selling price, said Chief Jacks, was $5 a skull, $10 for a body.
“He dug our people up and sold them to museums on all four corners of the earth,” said Chief Jacks, 63, who is hoping that the Canadian government will help defray the costs of the trip. “What happened to ‘rest in peace’?”
In 2004, Mrs. Jacks wrote to both the American Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where she believes the remains of 70 ancestors who are from Coast Salish, a designation for tribes in the Pacific Northwest, are also being stored. In 2005, Mrs. Jacks and Chief Jacks’s son, Vern Jacks Jr., visited both museums, and then began the arduous, paperwork-heavy process for repatriating remains, first from New York.
In 2006, tribe members began raising money to cover their trip. They held fund-raisers, auctioned art and gathered donations for their quest, which they called “Our Journey Home,” and the tribe contributed $55,000.
(Helen Robbins, the repatriation director at the Field Museum, said the tribe had yet to begin the required process in Chicago. Mrs. Jacks said they planned to begin that effort next, after more money is raised.)
Finally, in November 2007, Mrs. Jacks said, she received the good news from the American Museum of Natural History. “They told us we could now come to New York and get our ancestors,” she said. Then the tribe began the process of speaking to elders and leaders in the Tseycum tribe, which has just 150 members, and other area tribes.
“And then we waited for better weather in New York,” said Mrs. Jacks, 52. “We didn’t want to be here in the snow.”
In the end, Chief Jacks said, the entire trip cost $150,000, with 46 people from the Tseycum and related tribes making it.
Chief Jacks flew into Kennedy Airport on June 4, with seven other tribe members. The rest of the group arrived on Saturday. They were staying in the Holiday Inn on West 57th Street, where they booked 24 rooms.
In addition to preparing for Monday’s ceremony, Chief Jacks said tribe members visited the Statue of Liberty and took double-decker bus tours of the city.
They were taken off guard by the heat wave. “But I can’t complain,” Chief Jacks said, shrugging. “It won’t do any good to complain.”
The tribe planned to fly back to Victoria on Vancouver Island on Wednesday with their ancestors’ remains. Shortly after dawn on Wednesday, Chief Jacks said, the remains will be transported by van to Kennedy Airport and flown in the cargo hull back to Victoria. “A lot of our people will be waiting there,” he said.
And then the remains will be driven in the back of two pickup trucks to Tseycum land on Vancouver Island, transferred into 55 plain cedar boxes and reburied on native land, this time, the tribe vows, for good.
* By CARA BUCKLEY June 10, 2008