350-year-old museum artifact worn by First Nations woman at graduation

350-year-old museum artifact worn by First Nations woman at graduation

WATCH: A First Nations graduate wore a piece of family regalia at convocation borrowed from a collection at the Royal B.C. Museum. Ceilidh Millar reports. 

Jennifer Smith is filled with excitement and hope as she graduates from the Masters of Arts in Leadership and Health program at Royal Roads University.

“The big question now is ‘what’s next'” Smith said with a smile.

The lessons she has learned in the subject extend well beyond her generation as she recalls the bravery and courage of her great-grandfather, Chief Henry Abel Belle.

Smith is a member of the Tlowitsis First Nation on her father?s side and the Mamalilikulla of Village Island on her mother?s side.

“He was a great leader who stood up and fought for our culture even when it was illegal,” explained Smith.

“He emceed a potlatch that was held on Village Island even though the [practice] was banned in 1921. The authorities caught wind of it and he had the choice of going to jail or giving up his artifacts. He chose to give up his artifacts.”

A piece of ancient regalia her great-grandfather was able to keep was a traditional Chillkat blanket.

The ceremonial piece is believed to be at least 350-years-old.

“There were five blankets passed down through generations from the Tsimshian people,” she said. “Eventually they landed into my great grandfather’s hands.”

To help preserve the artifact, her great-grandfather sold the blanket to the Royal B.C. Museum in 1975 under one condition.

“Any of his children or grandchildren could sign it out for things like ceremonies at any time that they wished,” Smith said.

The piece is currently in storage at the museum, but a team of curators unpacked and brought the piece to the Royal Theatre where the convocation ceremony took place today.

The centuries-old blanket was placed on Smith before she crossed the stage – a sacred moment shared by Smith and her family.

“Even though the blanket resides in the museum, the sacredness of it is still very present and you can feel the history of our ancestors,” said Smith.

“It is now up to me to find my next step.”

Ceilidh MillarCeilidh Millar

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