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Historic First Nations artifact returned to B.C.

A composite photograph shows the different angles of the “hawilmis” (chiefly treasure) that was returned to B.C. this week. It was presented to Captain James Cook when he arrived at Friendly Cove in 1778. - Bill McLennan/UBC Museum of Anthropology
A composite photograph shows the different angles of the “hawilmis” (chiefly treasure) that was returned to B.C. this week. It was presented to Captain James Cook when he arrived at Friendly Cove in 1778.
— image credit: Bill McLennan/UBC Museum of Anthropology

It’s a treasure last touched by one of her ancestors more than 200 years ago.

The small, hand-carved ceremonial club was a gift to English Captain James Cook when he sailed into Nootka Sound in 1778.

On Tuesday, the valuable historic relic came home to British Columbia when it was donated to the UBC Museum of Anthropology by Canadian philanthropist Michael Audain.

On hand for the announcement was Margarita James, a member of the Mowachaht-Muchalaht First Nation and president of the Land of Maquinna Cultural Society, who was honoured to hold the club.

“It’s quite a spectacular piece,” she said Wednesday after arriving back home in Gold River. “What a wonderful person to honour our history and to put the money into it!”

Audain, through the Audain Foundation for the Visual Arts, has donated more than $20-million in art and historic objects to various Canadian galleries and museums. And has a special affinity for historic First Nations work.

“This ceremonial club has immense historical and cultural value. I am delighted to play a part in its return to Canada’s west coast,” he said. “While certain Nuu-chah-nulth objects collected by Cook exist in museums abroad – for example, in London, Berlin, and Vienna – this is the first and only in Canada.

“With our foundation’s donation, I hope to encourage the repatriation of other Northwest Coast art works to public museums and cultural centres in British Columbia.”

Valued at $1.2 million, the club was the last privately held object from Captain Cook’s collection.

It was bought from a dealer in New York and came with a provence, showing the past 11 owners back to Cook’s widow, Elizabeth Cook.

According to the museum, the club was carved by an aboriginal Northwest Coast artist as early as the mid-1700s, placing it within the last generation of traditional objects created before European contact.

Considered the oldest known and most finely executed club of this style, it is carved from yew wood in the shape of a hand holding a sphere.

It may have been both a ceremonial symbol of its owner’s high rank and a functional tool or weapon.

On Cook’s final voyage, his third to the Pacific, the explorer sailed the HMS Resolution to Hawaii (1776–1777) and become the first European to set foot on the Northwest Coast when he arrived at B.C.’s Nootka Sound on March 28, 1778. After sailing north in search of the Northwest Passage, Cook returned to Hawaii, where he was killed in 1779.

Like much of Cook’s personal collection, the club found its way from his family into the private Leverian Museum in London, where it was sold in 1806, passing through several private collections in Britain and the United States until it was obtained by the Audain Foundation.

According to James, the Mowachaht-Muchalaht First Nation, one of 15 nations comprising the Nuu-chah-nulth people, greeted and hosted Captain James Cook in 1778 at Yuquot (Friendly Cove) in Nootka Sound.

“What a wonderful gift for Canada, to bring back our history,” said James.

She is hopeful the club can one day come back to Yuquot.

The goal is to build an interpretive centre so that treasures can be returned, such as the club, ceremonial masks and the Friendly Cove whaling shrine which is on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

“We want to share our history with the world,” James added.

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