Totem pole to be ‘rematriated’ to Canada after almost a century in Scotland

The 163-year-old pole is to be returned to the Nisga’a nation in British Colombia.

Lucinda Cameron
Monday 28 August 2023 19:49 BST
Delegates from the Nisga’a nation with the totem pole in Edinburgh (Andrew Milligan/PA)
Delegates from the Nisga’a nation with the totem pole in Edinburgh (Andrew Milligan/PA) (PA Wire)

A special ceremony has been held to prepare a “stolen” 37ft (11-metre) memorial totem pole for its return to Canada from Scotland in what is said to be the first transfer of its kind from a UK institution.

The Nisga’a Lisims Government (NLG) and National Museums Scotland (NMS) agreed last December that the pole would be returned home to the Nass Valley in British Columbia after almost a century in Scotland.

It was acquired in 1929 by Canadian curator and ethnographer, Marius Barbeau, on behalf of the Royal Museum of Scotland, which later became the National Museum of Scotland (NMS), and went on display the following year.

However, NMS said that while the museum acted in good faith in its acquisition of the pole, it now understands that the individual(s) who “sold” it to Mr Barbeau did so without the cultural, spiritual, or political authority to do so on behalf of the Nisga’a Nation.

Following months of preparatory work, a delegation of family members and supporters from the Nisga’a Lisims Government has travelled to the museum in Edinburgh to oversee the start of the pole’s return.

A closed spiritual ceremony was held on Monday August 28 to prepare the pole for its journey home next month.

Sim’oogit Ni’isjoohl (Chief Earl Stephens) said: “In Nisga’a culture, we believe that this pole is alive with the spirit of our ancestors. After nearly 100 years, we are finally able to bring our dear relative home to rest on Nisga’a lands.

“It means so much for us to have the Ni’isjoohl memorial pole returned to us, so that we can connect our family, nation and our future generations with our living history.”

The memorial pole belongs to the House of Ni’isjoohl from the Ganada (frog clan) in the Nisga’a Nation.

In 1860, House of Ni’isjoohl matriarch Joanna Moody commissioned the pole to be carved by Nisga’a master carver Oyee to honour her family member Ts’awit, who was next in line to be chief. Ts’awit was also a warrior who died protecting his family and nation.

Sigidimnak’ Noxs Ts’aawit, Dr Amy Parent, said: “We are grateful to collectively tell a new story that turns the colonial gaze onto itself by acknowledging the complexities of our pole’s theft, its intergenerational absence from our community and the persistence needed to ensure that justice for our ancestors prevails.”

The return of the pole is being described as “rematriation”, which grounds the process of recovering belongings in indigenous law and is more closely in alignment with Nisga’a matrilineal society.

Next month, the pole will be transported to Terrace, British Columbia, and then driven in a family procession to the Nisga’a Village of Lax̱galts’ap in the Nass Valley where it will be housed at Hli Goothl Wilp-Adokshl Nisga’a – the Nisga’a Museum.

A public arrival ceremony will be held there on September 29 and the pole will be raised in the following days and available for the public to view in October.

Dr Chris Breward, director of NMS, said: “Since the transfer of the memorial pole was agreed last December, our teams have been planning the complex task of carefully lowering and transporting it in what is the first return of its type by a UK national institution.

“We are pleased to have reached the point where that work is now underway, and we are delighted to have welcomed the Nisga’a delegation to the museum before we bid the Pole farewell.”

External Affairs and Culture Secretary Angus Robertson said: “The great significance of the Ni’isjoohl memorial pole to the Nisga’a people and their community was made clear to me when I met with their representatives last year and I was pleased to have been able to provide the necessary ministerial consent to enable its return.”

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