11/29/2012 04:00 EST | Updated 01/28/2013 05:12 EST

Missing Native Masks: BC Families Search For Sacred Heirlooms

VANCOUVER - For the Hamilton and Sayers families, the two cedar masks depicting male and female serpents and known as hinkeets to the Hupacasath culture of Vancouver Island were among the most sacred of possessions.

Accompanied by shawls and even a specific dance, the masks were born of royal roots and for more than 100 years had been passed down the generations for their safe keeping — until they were sold unbeknownst to family members at an auction at the beginning of November.

The families say one of their own, a relation entrusted with their safe keeping, was behind the sale, and now they're pleading with whomever may have bought them for a chance to negotiate their return.

The family member responsible for the masks was out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

"These things are considered to be some of our very highest property, and they would be covered by our very highest laws, and those laws have consequences to them," said Wawmeesh G. Hamilton, a member of the Hupacasath First Nation and a journalist.

"So it's an egregious offence."

Hamilton said the masks sold for about $4,000 and $22,500 at the auction, a sale he only learned about when he was tipped off by a cousin who'd been attending the same event.

Judith Sayers, a former elected chief for the Hupacasath who lectures in law and business at the University of Victoria and is a first cousin to Wawmeesh, said she tried but was unsuccessful in getting the masks removed from bidding or even finding out who bought them.

The auctioneer, Seahawk Auctions, declined to comment.

The origin of the masks is with the Ucluelet First Nation, a band that calls the west coast of Vancouver Island home.

"Only members of chiefs families could use these things," said Hamilton.

"They were considered a very high and sacred item."

So sacred were the masks that they were used infrequently, and only during potlatches, memorials and naming ceremonies, said Hamilton who noted protocol even dictates how they were to be stored.

Hamilton said the masks were part of his grandmother's dowry when she married and moved inland to the Alberni Valley at the beginning of the 20th century. He said his grandmother also held the title, Hakuum, which means queen or monarch.

The masks, he said, were handed down to his mother, Jessie Hamilton, who died in 2008, before they were again passed on.

Hamilton said he was drinking a coffee and surfing the web at the beginning of November when he was tipped off to the sale by a cousin who was at the auction to try and buy back art from his own family.

"He said 'there's some things here that I think belong to your family,'" said Hamilton. "'They're being shown online and you should look.'"

Hamilton said he visited the auction house's website and saw masks that looked like his family's cedar masks.

While the auction house would not confirm the seller's name, Hamilton said he then contacted Sayers who confirmed the identity of the masks and the shawls before calling the auctioneer herself.

"We asked the auction house if they would remove them from the sale until the ownership issue could be cleared up and they just absolutely refused," said Sayers.

Sayers said the relative didn't have the right to sell the masks, contending they were "cultural property" owned by the family. Hamilton said similar, saying the relative "assumed cultural ownership, in a way, but she becomes the keeper of them for the family."

Meantime, Hamilton said the family is willing to trade a set of replica masks for the originals if they can find the individual who bought them and if that person is willing to sell.

He said he's hopeful the masks can be "repatriated."

"Right away, when this happened, I viewed them in the same manner that I did my mother's death," he said. "I didn't want her to die, and I didn't want her to leave this earth, but she did.

"And I had to carry on. We have to carry on."