An Archival Moment: A First Nations structure

Jenny Seeman
A First Nations Structure at Hatley Park in the 1920s

In 1913, James Dunsmuir acquired a wooden structure created by the Kwakwaka'wakw people to be used as a gate entrance to the Japanese garden. The sculpture was carved from western red cedar and had three upright pieces joined by a horizontal lintel. The picture below shows their position on the grounds of Hatley Park.

The sculpture was located at the Dunsmuir property from 1913-1938. It is supposed that the posts were originally intended for the inside of a house in Dzawadi and were carved around 1884, but the house was never completed and the house posts were left until they were bought by a collector who later sold them to James Dunsmuir. Dzawadi is about 100km northeast of Alert Bay and within the traditional territory of the Da’naxda’xw Awaetlala First Nation. The area is prized for its abundance of Eulachon fish, which are harvested and processed to produce eulachon oil (klina), an important food and trading commodity. 

In 1938, after Laura Dunsmuir’s death, the posts were sold to George Heye, who was a well-known collector of anthropological and archeological artefacts of the Americas. The posts were part of the collection at the Museum of the American Indian in New York until 1975 when they were bought by National Museums of Canada. They were placed on display in the Grand Hall at the Canadian Museum of Civilization (now the Museum of History) as part of the Northwest Coast exhibit when it first opened, but they have not been on display for several years now.

Already quite damaged by the time they were positioned at Hatley Park, the house posts needed considerable conservation treatment before they could be put on display safely in the Canadian museum. A conservator’s report shows that some careful restoration work had occurred when the house posts were relocated to Hatley Park. New wood pieces had been skillfully added to replace damage caused by a grass fire in its original location. A second, less careful restoration took place sometime after 1936, provable by the fact that pages of newspaper from that year were found used as filling material under a crude plaster and papier mache repair.

A grand auction was held in June of 1939 to sell the luxurious house furnishings belonging to the Dunsmuirs, and while the house posts are clearly visible on the front cover of the auction catalogue, they were no longer on site at that time. Do you know the locations of any Dunsmuir artefacts? Do you have photographs or memories of the site in previous years? Contact Jenny Seeman in the archives by email, or on ext. 4122 if you have anything to share.