By Wawmeesh G. Hamilton
September 21, 2014 - 11:26 AM
PORT ALBERNI - The actions of an aboriginal tourism operator in British Columbia who gave some travellers access to ancient burial boxes, including revealing the skeletal remains inside, have been condemned by his fellow First Nations.
A photo surfaced earlier this year on the Internet of Tom Sewid of Aboriginal Adventures Canada peering into an open burial box with skeletal remains in clear view. A second photo of Sewid, dressed in aboriginal watchman attire, shows him standing beside the box that sits atop a large boulder in a heavily forested area.
The incident happened last summer on a remote island of the Broughton Archipelago between northern Vancouver Island and the B.C. coast. It set off investigations by the RCMP and the provincial Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources, but no charges or sanctions are expected.
Sewid's actions prompted a sharp rebuke from his own First Nation, the Nanwakolas, and he has been relieved of his duties as a watchman.
But Sewid said his actions were part of his duties overseeing the remains of his ancestors and he denied being disrespectful.
"I was a native watchman, guardian who had to protect those sites," he said in an interview "We make sure none of the kayak or tour companies were bringing clients in to view our ancestors' bones."
When asked why he allowed the picture to be taken, Sewid said the photo was meant for a specific use.
"You're trying to paint me as the bad guy. That picture was taken for one reason and one reason only: it was to be used at the year-end report," he said.
Nanwakolas Council president Dallas Smith said councillors were extremely saddened to learn that images of an open burial box were taken with a First Nations' individual standing next to the box.
"The fact that this incident involved one of our own nation's members is troubling and does not make it any less hurtful or wrong," he said in a news release posted on the council's website.
The council co-operated with the ministry and RCMP investigations, and it chastised Sewid.
"We have made it clear to the individual depicted in the photos that we condemn his involvement in this horrific incident," Smith said.
Sewid said he explicitly told Washington state photographer Katya Palladina not to publish the pictures and three months later he saw the pictures on the Internet.
"I contacted her and said 'Get that God damned picture off your blog now."
Palladina was accompanied by Andrew Elizaga, who shot video during the encounter.
Both Palladina and Elizaga say Sewid told them they could freely shoot pictures and video at the burial site.
"I asked if we were allowed to photograph and Tom assured us, 'Yes. If it will be used to educate people that you shouldn't go there,'" Palladina said. "He brought us there. We never would go there on our own," she said.
Elizaga provided a copy of a video to back up their account. The video shows Sewid lifting a lid off a burial box revealing human skeletal remains and speaking to the videographer.
"And what I am going to share with the people now with your blog, is what is inside that box. And it is just so that we can stop the curiosity. They know what’s in there. They can imagine now. They can look at your blog," Sewid said.
"I only do this because I want people to stay out of here," Sewid explained.
When Sewid was contacted for a second time about his statement on the video he again denied knowing that the video and pictures would be on the Internet.
"OK, whatever. Just spin it whatever way you want. I don't care," he said before hanging up.
Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs vice-president Bob Chamberlin was alerted to the matter in April when someone forwarded an Internet link to the pictures. He contacted Mounties and the provincial government about the incident.
"It troubled me to think of why someone — particularly another aboriginal person — would even think of disturbing our ancestors' human remains let alone actually doing it," Chamberlin said in an interview. "I can't think of anything more pathetic."
While First Nations have many different customs, Chamberlin said the one thing they all have in common is a respect for the dead.
"That's a sacred thing," Chamberlin said. "I don't know where he gets his cultural teachings from but what I saw in those pictures is not consistent with our traditions."
The Canadian Press was asked not to show the picture with the skeletal remains.
A spokesman from the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources confirmed the matter was investigated.
"The archeological branch can confirm there was evidence of sites being disturbed, but the branch did not issue any permits," said Greg Bethel
The location of the site won't be disclosed in order to prevent others from going to the same location, he said.
Cpl. Don Birch of the Alert Bay RCMP confirmed police concluded an investigation with the potential for charges under the B.C. Heritage and Conservation Act. No charges were recommended, he said.
News from © The Canadian Press, 2014