Members of the Nisga’a First Nation are travelling to Scotland in a bid to repatriate a memorial totem pole that was taken from their land almost a century ago and later sold to the country’s national museum.
The Ni’isjoohl memorial pole is “a living constitutional and visual archive,” said Noxs Ts’aawit (Dr. Amy Parent), a Canada research chair in Indigenous education and governance at Simon Fraser University and part of the delegation heading to Scotland.
“So to have it removed is like having someone rip out a chapter of Canada’s constitution and your most treasured family photo album and place it in a museum in another country to be viewed by foreigners on a daily basis,” she said.
The First Nation in northwestern British Columbia says colonial ethnographer Marius Barbeau stole the pole in 1929 and later sold it to the National Museum of Scotland.
The Ni’isjoohl memorial pole is a house pole that was carved and erected in the 1860s. It tells the story of Ts’wawit, a warrior who was next in line to be chief before he was killed in a conflict with a neighbouring nation.
In a statement, the Nisga’a said the pole “represents a chapter of the Peoples’ cultural sovereignty and is a living constitutional and visual record.”
It said Barbeau took the pole without the consent of the House of Ni’isjoohl — one of around 50 houses within the Nisga’a Nation — during a period when the Nisga’a Peoples were away from their villages for the annual hunting, fishing and harvesting season.
Noxs Ts’aawit said it belongs to the Nisga’a.
“We just want our children to wake up every day and not have to search so hard for the stories for who we are,” she said.
Sim’oogit Ni’isjoohl (Chief Earl Stephens) and Shawna McKay will join Noxs Ts’aawit to meet museum staff on Aug. 22.
Sim’oogit Ni’isjoohl said in the news release it will be the first time in recent memory that members of the nation will see the pole in person.
“This visit will be deeply emotional for us all,” he said in the statement.
The National Museum of Scotland did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2007, the United Kingdom voted to support the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous People, part of which calls for the repatriation of ceremonial objects.
In 2010, the Royal B.C. Museum and the Canadian Museum of History returned 276 historical and spiritual artifacts to the Nisga’a under the terms of the treaty signed in 2000 by the Nisga’a and the governments of Canada and B.C.
The Nisga’a said, to date, only one totem pole from Canada, the Haisla G’psgolox pole, has ever been successfully repatriated from a European museum.
It was returned from Sweden in 2006.