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Sterling Prize recipient challenges racism and role of museums in era of reconciliation

August 25, 2021

In an era of reconciliation, museums are being called on by Indigenous professionals like Sdahl K’awaas (also known as Lucy Bell) to be more accountable, anti-racist places.

Sdahl K’awaas is the recipient of Simon Fraser University’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 in an era of reconciliation.

“Receiving the Sterling Prize is so amazing and to see that people hear my truth and my voice,” says Sdahl K’awaas. “The whole point of the prize is to provide a platform to have difficult conversations, so it’s a huge win for whistleblowers and Indigenous people. It shows we can do something about racism and that there’s an opportunity to make 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 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 on opportunity to further the discussion on racism against Indigenous people and as another step toward reconciliation so the next generation, like her daughter Amelia, don’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 will receive the Sterling Prize and give a lecture on these issues at an award ceremony on Thursday, Oct. 14 at the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver, which will be livestreamed for the public.

To register, visit the Sterling Prize award ceremony event page.

More broadly, Sdahl K’awaas’ experience is forcing museums to reflect on themselves and grapple with their colonial legacy at the same time Canada comes to terms with its treatment of Indigenous people.

“It makes me so sad that I had to leave the Royal BC Museum to speak my truth but this is a bigger issue in the heritage field,” she says.

Sdahl K’awaas 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).

There are more than 12,000 belongings from the Haida Nation scattered in museums and galleries around the world, some of which the Haida are trying to reclaim and bring back home.

The Sterling Prize was first awarded in 1993 and remains committed to recognizing work that provokes and contributes to the understanding of controversy, while presenting new ways of looking at the world and challenging complacency. The prize recognizes work across disciplines and departments and is awarded annually by the Sterling Prize committee.