Shortly past closing time on a late Friday afternoon, staff with the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin patiently waited to present a First Nations chief with artifacts from Chilko Lake.
A hand woven baby basket and box containing arrowheads and a piece of obsidian were spread out on a table with large stone tools for Xeni Gwet’in Chief Jimmy Lulua by museum manager Alex Geris and society president Janice Sapp.
“There’s just some really amazing pieces in here,” Sapp said, noting there was no question the piece of obsidian came from the Chilcotin where there is only one deposit.
“You see this stuff quite often but maybe not as intact as some of these arrowheads are.”
Maureen Wallin of Eagle Bay recalled fondly how Tommy Lulua had his family make her a baby basket for her first son, Rick, born in 1968.
She said her father became close friends with Tommy through his work for the International Pacific Salmon Commission where every spring he would take a crew of men into Chilko Lake or Chilko River to count the salmon fry.
“Tommy used to come down to the fisheries camp and have lunch or coffee and cake with my parents,” Wallin recalled, noting in the evenings her parents would find arrowheads near the freshly bulldozed ground for an airstrip by the Chilko Lake Lodge.
Decades later Wallin, 74, started sorting through the many keepsakes that her and her husband amassed over their many moves including the basket they had kept in memory of Rick who passed away at the age of 22.
“I didn’t just want to get rid of it because it was special,” she said, noting she had reached out to one of her friend’s daughters who works at the Chase and District Museum and Archives and had contacted the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin.
“I thought they should all go back to where they came from.”
With the museum in Williams Lake agreeing to accept the items, Wallin’s husband Joe made the more than three hour drive to deliver the artifacts. Stone tools used as anchors for fishing were also donated by Carol Scott whose husband Doug Stelter worked with Wallin’s father at Chilko Lake.
Upon his arrival Chief Jimmy Lulua was thrilled to see the items including two photos of Tommy taken by Wallin’s mother who would cook for the crew.
“We’ve already proven that we won Aboriginal rights and title, but this is just another symbol and a sign that we haven’t lost everything,” Lulua said.
“We’re still piecing together our history and our culture back piece by piece, and it’s not going to be perfect by any means but seeing things like this does bring hope.”
Because of the hardships brought upon Indigenous people by colonization, smallpox and residential school, Lulua said he does not know his direct bloodline including that of his grandparents and that any direct relation to Tommy is unknown.
Before departing with two quilts gifted by Wallin, Lulua asked that the museum display the artifacts in a separate case.
Both Sapp and Geris, who is working on the repatriation of Indigenous artifacts, agreed and suggested Xeni Gwet’in Elders provide a write up about Tommy.
Through a shared stewardship agreement, the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin will safely house the artifacts until Xeni Gwet’in decides they would like to have them returned to them.
“Through experience I’ve come across many First Nations and a lot of them I’ve talked to, mostly the Coastal people, I ask them why would you leave a totem pole in a museum,” Lulula said.
“They go ‘well it’s preserved so the future generations can come and watch and learn the artwork,’ so I kind of want to bring more pieces back here so future generations know how to put together buckskin gloves, a buckskin purse or moccasins because those are the things that are getting lost.”