For 60 years, the Great Canoe has been displayed at the 77th Street Entrance at the American Museum of Natural History. But last Tuesday morning, it was moved to the Northwest Coast Hall, which is currently undergoing a major renovation and will reopen in 2021, during the celebration of the Museum’s 150th anniversary.

The canoe will be a centerpiece of the newly renovated hall when it reopens. Made of a single Western red cedar tree, it is 63 feet long—the longest dugout canoes in existence, according to the museum, about the length of two school buses placed end to end.

Prior to its big move last week, three leaders from the Pacific Northwest First Nations blew small, white feathers — eagle down — onto the hull of the canoe as they circled it to bless it for its short journey. Other leaders played a drum and sang a song, and then said a prayer.

“We don’t do momentus things without calling our ancestors to be with us,” said Nuu-chaa-nulth artist and cultural historian Haa’yuups, who is co-curator of the hall. “I was thanking the most distant ancient ancestors for having created this beautiful thing that we all marvel at.”

The canoe is grand and beautiful, decorated with a figurehead of a sea wolf and paintings of a killer whale and raven. It arrived in New York in 1883 from Canada, after a long journey by ship, railway and horse-drawn carriage.

“Especially during the 1870s, there was a so-called ‘scramble’ for northwest artifacts,” said Peter Whitely, the curator of North American Ethnology at the museum. “The Smithsonian was involved with that, the Harvard Peabody was. Explorers, colonists, Indian agents were seeing these magnificent cultural pieces like the totem poles and the canoe and they started gathering as much of this as they could.”

Whiteley said that they were gathering these works from people who “were in distress... who had suffered major epidemics. There was massive population loss. And there was a lot of pressure from the Canadian government, the American government, to acculturate and give up old ways.”

These objects then made their way to the museum, where Franz Boas — known as the father of anthropology — created in the Northwest Coast Hall, “the first museum exhibit to value indigenous cultures on their own terms," instead of in relation to Western cultures, the museum says on its website. The hall is the museum’s oldest gallery and is perhaps best known for the line of totem poles at the center of the hallway.

The Hall itself is currently closed, stripped down to its struts as it undergoes renovation. The museum has been working with ten Native American leaders from the Pacific Northwest, including Haa’yuups, to re-think how the Hall displays objects, and which objects it should display.

What to display from the museum’s collection — and how to do it — has been the subject of ongoing controversy. On Indigenous Peoples Day in previous years, hundreds of people have protested outside of the museum, asking for the removal of the Theodore Roosevelt statue flanked by figures of a Native American man and an African man. The figures are on city-owned land, and the museum had previously added informational plaques and a video available online as recommended by the city’s monument’s commission

A 1939 diorama depicting an interaction between Peter Stuyvesant and a delegation of Lenape has also been reconsidered with new context added to the window glass.

But the Northwest Hall renovation is something different, a complete reworking. Most of the objects that had previously been on exhibit are being conserved, and hundreds of objects in the museum’s collection will be on exhibit there for the first time

“We’ve had a really good relationship starting in 2002 with the American Museum of Natural History and we have worked on a variety of good-meaning projects that have really contributed to putting ourselves back together as indigenous people and also to finding a new way of living together with mutual respect, cooperation and trust,” said Jisgang Nika Collison, who is a member of the Haida nation and executive director of the Haida Gwaii Museum in British Columbia.

An important part of the collaboration has been including context for the objects on display. Jisgang said that canoes were central to their founding myths, but were also vital social connectors, with waterways providing a way to trade news and goods.

“We've always connected with and and traded with and had a beautiful relationship because of the canoe,” Jisang said. “The canoe is integral to being an ocean-going people and it continues to be our connector — and now it connects us with New York.”

The Great Canoe will be back on exhibit with the Northwest Coast Hall re-opens in 2021.