Sdahl Ḵ’awaas receives 2021 Sterling Prize

She was recognized for speaking out against racism in heritage work

S'dahl K'awaas Sterling Prize event poster
PHOTO: SFU Public Square

By: Gurleen Aujla, Peak Associate 

Content warning: mentions of anti-Indigenous racism in paragraph four

On October 14, 2021, Sdahl Ḵ’awaas received the Nora and Ted Sterling Prize award. The Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy recognizes work that “contributes to the understanding of controversy” and challenges complacency. 

During the ceremony, she had a live conversation with Jisgang Nika Collison and Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra about her story and the role of museums in reconciliation. It took place at the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art. Collison is from the Ḵaay’ahl Laanas of the Haida Nation and executive director of the Haida Gwaii Museum, and Sandhra is a UBC history PhD candidate.

Sdahl Ḵ’awaas, also known as Lucy Bell, is a member of the Haida Nation. She resigned from her position as head of the Indigenous collections and repatriation department at the Royal British Columbia Museum in 2020, citing a racist and discriminatory culture. 

At the ceremony, Sdahl Ḵ’awaas recalled an instance when a curator said, “‘The Haidas treat the museum like a grocery store’” in response to a request for two masks out of the thousands in the museum’s collection. She heard another executive member at an anti-racism workshop say “it was a science that Indigenous people can’t handle alcohol.” 

Her resignation led to a months-long investigation by the Public Service Agency into the culture at the museum. The results of the investigation confirmed the museum to be a “dysfunctional and toxic workplace, ­characterized by a culture of fear and ­distrust.”

Sdahl Ḵ’awaas said, “I am both happy and sad to accept this award. It just breaks my heart that I’m here getting an award for shit that I had to put up with. 

I hope that my speaking out [creates] a space for my girl, for my nieces, my nephews to have, to claim their space in these institutions, to claim our belongings, for our kids to be going out there and getting those 12,000 Haida belongings and to not be faced with racism and a closed door.” 

Sdahl Ḵ’awaas believes justice has not yet been served. “There’s still a lot more work to do.” She added, “It’s going to take museums and the people in the museums to speak out and do better [ . . . ] I called them to action, they need to step up and do the work.” 

Speaking to the future of museology, Ḵ’awaas said, “I don’t think you need belongings to tell a story of people [ . . . ] 95–97% percent of our belongings are in storage.

I’d rather see them have current belongings, something that somebody today has created for that purpose, not [those] stolen or sold under duress to tell our story, a fragmented story.” 

Other museums such as the Museum of Vancouver (MOV) began the process of repatriation — returning Haida belongings to Haida Gwaii — in 2019. Curators at MOV also consult Indigenous groups for their knowledge and input on exhibits.

Sdahl Ḵ’awaas is continuing the Haida nation’s repatriation work and pursuing a PhD in individualized interdisciplinary studies at SFU, focusing on Indigenous museology. 

For those interested, the ceremony is available for viewing on SFU Public Square’s YouTube channel.