Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 19, 2001 - Issue 36



A Native Treasure Returns Home


Housed in a Swedish museum since 1929, a 130-year-old totem pole steeped in legend is being given back to its Haisla village


 by Maria Cook The Ottawa Citizen

STOCKHOLM - A group of fair-haired schoolchildren rushes toward the seats around a totem pole in the National Museum of Ethnography here. They settle in to hear the story of how the totempolen, as its called in Swedish, came from Canada 70 years ago, and how it will soon return.

"Children often ask: 'Are there any Indians today? Are they still alive?' " says Karin Westberg, a teacher at the museum. "We can tell them this is a living culture."

The nine-metre-high wooden pole, carved in British Columbia in the 1870s, is one of the world's oldest preserved objects of its kind. It is believed to be the first artifact to be voluntarily returned directly to a Canadian aboriginal group from a collection in a country outside of North America.

The return of the pole is part of a growing international trend towards the repatriation of cultural treasures to communities of origin.

"The pole is an umbilical cord from the past to the present," says Louisa Smith, an elder of the Haisla people, who first travelled to Sweden 10 years ago to ask for the return of the pole. "We want to use it as a teaching tool for the younger generation."

In the late 1920s, Olof Hansson, a Swedish consul stationed in Prince Rupert, badly wanted to acquire a totem pole for Sweden. After years of negotiations with an Indian agent (a federal government employee who acted as a liaison and overseer with aboriginal people) the pole was transported by ship to Sweden in 1929 and donated to the museum.

The totem pole once stood at the entrance to the beautiful Kitlope Valley, the largest unlogged coastal temperate rain forest ecosystem, about 600 kilometres northwest of Vancouver. (The Haisla worked with Ecotrust Canada, a Vancouver environmental group to save this 320,000-hectare region from industrial development. In 1994 it was declared a cultural and ecological heritage park. Ecotrust is also involved in the totem pole project.)

The pole was erected in 1872 by G'psgolox, chief of the Kitlope people, later known as the Haisla. According to legend, G'psgolox lost his family to smallpox in 1862. He went into the forest where the good spirit Tsooda revealed itself. When G'psgolox explained his grief, the spirit gave him a transparent rock and told him to return to the tree where his loved ones were buried and bite the crystal. When he did so, the people came back to life.

To commemorate the encounter with the supernatural, G'psgolox commissioned a memorial pole. The top image of the totem pole represents the Tsooda spirit whose hat revolves around his head. The middle is the grizzly bear "Asolget" and the bottom figure is the mythical grizzly bear that lives under the water. The bears are symbols of spiritual power.

It is a rare artifact in Europe, where there are only a handful of totem poles. At first it stood outside the museum, but when the museum moved to a new location, it was put into storage for nearly 50 years. The pole was finally raised in 1980 when a new museum was built with a specially designed central hall.

After researching the pole's whereabouts, a Haisla delegation went to Stockholm in 1991 saying the pole had been stolen. "That pole belongs to my family," says Ms. Smith, a descendent of G'psgolox. She describes her first sight of the pole as "breathtaking. My feet just led me toward it."

Some Swedes argued the artifact should stay where it was, but most agreed it should be sent home. In 1994, the Swedish government authorized the return of the totem pole once a climate-controlled facility is built at the village of Kitamaat, where about 700 of today's 1,200 Haisla live.

Some Haisla delegates resented this requirement, saying the pole should stand outside, but they came to realize the necessity of preserving it. "We were very grateful to them for keeping the old pole in its current condition," said Ms. Smith.

In recognition that the pole was obtained in good faith, four carvers travelled here last summer, with help from the Swedish government, to create a replica. It lies beside the original pole waiting to replace it. Another replica has been erected in the original location.

The totem pole is probably the first repatriation to a native group from a country outside North America, says Andrea Laforet, director of the Canadian Ethnology Service at the Museum of Civilization. While other native artifacts have been recovered from collections in the U.S and Europe, they've ended up at Canadian museums, and those artifacts that have been directly returned to Canadian natives have come from the U.S.

The Haisla hope to raise about $6 million for a museum and cultural centre to house the pole, with completion expected in about three years. They plan to approach the federal and provincial governments as well as philanthropic organizations.

"The pole is the only one of its kind," said Gerald Amos, the Haisla chief treaty negotiator. "In our territory there are none of that age."

So far they have raised $300,000 for the project from the David Suzuki Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in New York, and others. That money has gone for travel, salaries for coordinators and carving of the replicas. The National Film Board of Canada is also producing a documentary.

Fredrik Wetterqvist, a spokesman for the Swedish Embassy in Ottawa, has suggested that perhaps one of Sweden's best-known architects, Thomas Sandell, might be invited to design the centre. "We have an opportunity to make a rather nice Swedish-Canadian goodwill project," he said.

And Ian Gill, of Ecotrust, has spoken to Arthur Erickson, a Vancouver architect of Swedish ancestry, about the project.

Both Mr. Sandell and Mr. Erickson have expressed interest.

Meanwhile, the Haisla plan to ask museums in Canada, including the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, for the return of artifacts and have sent inquiries to museums in New York, Germany and England.

Since the 1970s, the Canadian Museum of Civilization has returned at least 300 items to aboriginal groups and will return about 100 under an agreement between the federal government and the Nisga'a tribe of B.C.

Haisla Totem Pole Repatriation Project




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