Phd student and 2021 Sterling prize recipient challenges role of museums in era of reconciliation
Sdahl K’awaas (also known as Lucy Bell), of the Haida Nation, devoted more than half of her life to repatriating Haida belongings from museums before pursuing a PhD at SFU. In 2019, she was awarded the Indigenous Graduate Entrance Scholarship to finance her PhD research examining how museums can indigenize and decolonize their practices. K’awaas is also the recipient of SFU’s 2021 Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy for her bravery in calling out racism in the heritage field and advocating for change.
She made headlines in 2020 when she resigned from her high-profile position as the first head of the Indigenous Collections and Repatriation Department at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.
In her resignation speech, which launched a B.C. Public Service Agency investigation, Sdahl K’awaas alleged a culture of personal and systemic institutional racism that she and other Indigenous and people of colour faced in the workplace. Her speech and allegations rocked the museum world.
The investigation substantiated numerous claims of racism and workplace bullying.
She sees the Sterling Prize as an opportunity to further the discussion on racism against Indigenous people and as another step toward reconciliation so the next generation, like her daughter Amelia, doesn’t have to face the same discrimination she has. “There are so many opportunities within the heritage field in Canada, we have to address discrimination in order to move forward,” she says.
Sdahl K’awaas is a founding member of the Haida Repatriation Committee, which has repatriated more than 500 ancestral remains to Haida Gwaii. She continues to support the Haida Nation’s repatriation efforts, while working towards her PhD in individualized interdisciplinary studies at SFU (focusing on Indigenous museology and Haida museum practice as an act of restitution and reconciliation).
“I grew up in an era when being an ‘Indian’ was shameful,” recalls Bell. “My naanii, Grace Wilson-Dewitt, taught me to Haida dance and sing with an ice cream bucket for a drum and crochet blankets as regalia. It was
just ridiculous that our little community had nothing, yet museums were bursting at the seams with over 12,000 Haida belongings.”
Bell’s research will also incorporate Haida philosophies such as Gin ‘waadluwaan gudahl kwagiidang,’ the belief that everything is connected. All Haidas are connected to their mothers and to Haida Gwaii by an invisible cord called a ‘liis’. Bell says this philosophy connects her research to her heritage, her ancestors, and her home and identity as a Haida researcher.
“Having the financial support from the graduate entrance scholarship has strengthened my liis—my connection to my Haida ancestors and home,” says Bell. “My research needs to be rooted in my Haida- ness and it can be difficult to stay connected and grounded to Haida Gwaii. With the support of SFU, I have been able to go home often to do my research.”
Bell’s supervisor, professor Marianne Ignace, acknowledges Bell’s passion for protecting and revitalizing Indigenous culture, calling her “one of the trailblazers in the field of repatriation and Indigenous museology.”