The Burke Museum hosted a private ceremony on Fri., October 6, 2006, honoring the museum’s historic repatriation of the Stone T'xwelátse (Tix-wil-aht-sah) to the Nooksack Indian Tribe of Washington State, with the cooperation of the Stó:lō Nation of Canada. This was the first time in Washington history that repatriation involved the cooperation of two tribes from two different countries. Director of the Burke Museum, Julie Stein, comments that, "The cooperation between the Burke and these two tribes across international borders is an enormous achievement and a fine model for museum and Native relations everywhere."
As the Native legend goes, the Stone T'xwelátse is a man transformed into stone. "T'xwelátse and his wife were on the riverbank arguing when Xá:ls happened upon them. Xá:ls is the great Transformer being, given the responsibility by Chichel Siya:m for making things right as he traveled through our lands. Xá:ls asked this man and woman if they would consider not arguing and that there were better ways of resolving conflict and resolving problems. As a result of his intervention Xá:ls and T'xwelátse, who was a shaman, decided to have a contest. They tried to transform each other into various things—a salmon, a mink, a twig. Finally, Xá:ls was successful into transforming T'xwelátse into stone. Xá:ls then gave the responsibility of caring for Stone T'xwelátse to T'xwelátse's wife. Stone T'xwelátse was to be brought home and placed in front of their house as a reminder to all of the family that we have to learn to live together in a good way. And the family's responsibility from that point in time was caring for Stone T'xwelátse – given to one of the women of our family. They were to be the caretakers of Stone T'xwelátse throughout their lifetime and would pass it onto one of their daughters or granddaughters who would then be responsible for caring for Stone T'xwelátse for that generation."
– as told by Herb Joe, one of the carriers of the T'xwelátse name
In the mid-1800s, the Stone T'xwelátse was moved from the Chilliwack Valley (in what is now British Columbia) when a Chilliwack woman married into the neighboring Sumas area (in what is now Washington) through an inter-tribal marriage. In the 1880s and early 1890s, Native people abandoned the southern Sumas lake area when vigilante groups attacked Native villages. The Stone was probably left in an abandoned village. In 1892, the Stone T'xwelátse was "found" by farmers, eventually sold to the Young Naturalists' Society (founders of the current Burke Museum), and the stone was moved to Seattle in 1904. He was frequently on display at the Burke Museum for the next century.
In 1992, Herb Joe, a Stó:lō Nation and Nooksack Tribe member, located the Stone T’xwelátse at the Burke Museum and began efforts on behalf of the Stó:lō Nation to have the Stone T’xwelátse returned to his community. As a public trust, the museum is unable to return any of its collections without an explicit legal mandate. The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) requires museums to repatriate ancestral human remains and cultural items including funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony to affiliated Native American tribes. However, this law only applies to U.S. Federally-recognized Native American tribes, so the Burke Museum was unable to return the Stone T’xwelátse to the Stó:lō Nation of British Columbia.
In October 2005, the Burke Museum received a formal NAGPRA request claiming the Stone T'xwelátse as an "object of cultural patrimony" affiliated with the Nooksack Indian Tribe (of the Sumas area of Washington) with the support of the Stó:lō Nation. The Burke Museum staff of archaeologists began coordinating efforts to return the stone sculpture to the tribe. The closely interconnected Nooksack and Stó:lō (particularly Chilliwack, Sumas, and Matsqui) communities surrounding the former Sumas Lake were artificially divided in 1858-59 with the establishment of the international border separating the United States and Canada. In March 2006, the Burke Museum approved the claim and proceeded with the formal legal procedures mandated by NAGPRA to repatriate the Stone T'xwelátse to the Nooksack Indian Tribe.
On October 6, 2006, a year after receiving the formal request, the Burke Museum held a celebration to commemorate the repatriation of the Stone T'xwelátse to the Nooksack Tribe. Over the next several weeks, he was moved to the Nooksack Tribe and then to the Stó:lō Nation. The Stó:lō Nation plans to place him at the entrance to their new Ch-ihl-kway-uhk Tribe's Healing and Wellness Centre, which is currently under construction on the Chilliwack River, very close to where T'xwelátse was first turned to stone. The Burke Museum is pleased to have assisted with efforts to return Stone T'xwelátse to his ancestral home, where he will serve as an embodiment and reminder of his story.