Wawmeesh George Hamilton's son Brendan at the last event the family Hinkeets masks were danced publicly, a memorial potlatch in 2006. (Photos provided by Wawmeesh George Hamilton)

Sacred First Nation Masks Sold to Highest Bidder

David Wiwchar
December 10, 2012

The last time the Hamilton family saw their sacred masks in person they were being danced across the floor at a memorial potlatch in Port Alberni, British Columbia. The next time they saw the masks, they were pictured on an auction website on November 4th with a large ‘SOLD’ sign stamped across them.

The Hinkeets (sea serpent) masks are among the most sacred items within Nuu-chah-nulth culture. Only chiefs or high-ranking families own them, and train their sons to dance them according to ancient protocols.

Jessie Hamilton was royalty: a Ha-kuum (queen) within the Hupacasath First Nation. Two of her most prized cultural possessions were a pair of Hinkeets masks: a male and female painted bright red, white, black, and blue, estimated at more than a century old.

The pair of Hinkeets masks came from the Ucluelet First Nation, from Jessie’s mother upon her marriage to Dan Watts of Hupacasath, and became officially hers after her mother’s death in 1967.

When Jessie died at the age of 84 in 2008, her will specified that all of her “household possessions” would go to her youngest daughter, Joy. But according to Joy’s older brother Wawmeesh George Hamilton, who is now forced to deal with the cultural storm swirling around the sacred Hinkeets masks, there’s a big difference between personal possessions and family cultural possessions.

“If you were to even hint at the idea of selling those masks, my mother would have slapped the taste right out of your mouth,” said Wawmeesh, who sometimes freelances for Indian Country Today Media Network. “They are not chattel to be bought and sold; they are our family histories over thousands of years, and our place within Hupacasath and Nuu-chah-nulth culture.”

Wawmeesh learned of the auction sale through a cousin, who happened to be at a Vancouver auction of Northwest Coast Native Arts. The cousin recognized the distinctive masks as belonging to the Hamilton family, and immediately called Wawmeesh, who in turn called family member and well-known lawyer Judith Sayers for help.


two then phoned Seahawk Auctions in Vancouver and tried to have the sale halted, but were told the seller had produced a legal will proving ownership of the masks and the sale would go on.

“We tried to explain to them that there is a difference between private property and family cultural property, but their heads were full of dollar signs instead of sense,” Wawmeesh said. “The art auction is a game played by rich people who don’t care about cultures or correctness.”

In the end, the male mask sold for $22,500 and the female mask is believed to have sold for $4,000. The only information Wawmeesh has been able to gather about the buyer is that his given name might be Ivan, and that one or both masks are still in British Columbia.

Hupacasath carver Rod Sayers has offered to carve a replica pair, and plans to offer them first to the buyer of the original masks before giving them to the family as a replacement.

According to Wawmeesh, his 45-year-old younger sister Joy moved to Goa, India with a boyfriend two months ago. All attempts to contact her have failed. She has not returned phone calls or e-mails, and Wawmeesh said she will not be welcomed back by her family or her First Nation.

“There’s no ‘I’m sorry’ here. There’s no going back,” said Wawmeesh. “She can’t carry a (traditional Hupacasath) name, title, or participate culturally now. Our family will go on, but it will be minus one,” he said.

Seahawk Auctions have also refused to return calls on this matter, and Wawmeesh said police are now involved.

“The auction should have pulled them. They should have done cultural due diligence,” said Wawmeesh. “These masks are the highest of cultural property on the west coast here, and they should have recognized that and realized there would be an issue with those masks,” he said. “I would like to see the issue brought to court so communal property issues could be formalized.”

Wawmeesh has resigned himself to the loss. The loss of the masks is almost as painful as the loss of his mother, and now the loss of his sister—and future generations will be deprived of seeing the ancient Hamilton family Hinkeets danced at potlatches and important events.

“The ancient songs and dances will still be performed with the new masks, but they’ll be like a prosthetic after an amputation,” said Wawmeesh. “I’m sure the replacement masks will be beautiful but they’re not that pair.”


Two Bears Growling's picture
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on

What a terrible loss for these brothers, sisters & tribe of the loss of their cultural heirlooms. Even worse, is the one who is now banished from her family & tribe as well.

Young people need to be taught early on the seriousness of receiving a banishing from their family & tribe. It is a bad thing to be considered dead, but still be living in this world.

Here again is what happens when a young person is drawn away by the Invaders culture. This is what being white in spirit, yet looking Native is partially about. We are losing so many of our young people to the outside world of the Invaders & all the distractions they put out that excites young people: Their music, culture, entertainment, etc.

This needs to stop before we have no future generation to pass on OUR culture, language & beliefs to! We parents & elders have got to get ahold of this before it becomes too late. Through OUR examples our young ones see with their eyes the spirit our peoples have or do not have inside any longer.

We have to teach our ways while there are those still among our many First Nations elders who remember the old ways, our languages & beliefs. Someday, they too, will be joining the ancestors & our ancient ways, words & beliefs will be lost forever.

We need to ALL be striving to educate our young ones ourselves & stop this losing our young people to the Invaders ways & enticements. We need to stop this giving the Invaders names to our children for a start. What is wrong with naming our children with our names in our languages & words? Have we become ashamed to even be associated with our ancient ones? Have we lost the part of our spirit that makes our peoples unique?

What is wrong with celebrating OUR holidays in our ancient ways? Why be part of those who murdered our peoples in times gone by & forced us to stop OUR languages, beliefs & OUR family values?

Why not start anew & start with celebrating in our ancient ways TODAY! Light the ancient fire that is within each of us. Celebrate with joy & gladness. We were proud peoples in times gone by & CAN be again with the renewal of the fire within our spirits. Hoka Hey!

Two Bears Growling Buffalo's Thunder

Submitted by Anonymous on

As a native carver / artist and spiritual person, it is very disturbing to hear of something like this happening to what to us is so spiritually sensitive being bought and or sold. Our Ancestors shared with us the importance of keeping these items in their proper place and cared for for future use when needed. Our lands were taken, our identity was of no importance to the visitors from the east. And genocide was first on the minds of these newcomers, and the irony of this is that they also had a desire to possess parts of our identity such as our masks and totems and much more. What good is a mask to someone that know's nothing of it's true meaning?

Submitted by Anonymous on

this is a very sad story~one possibly many families have had to face in changing times. Hold on to your family traditions,no amount of money can give you Honor. I am sad for each person who has to go through this situation.I hope it can be resolved .

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