• Totem poles in Thunderbird Park in Victoria, BC

    Thunderbird Park in Victoria, B.C. (Photo: Betty Dingwell/Can Geo Photo Club)

Told to Briony Penn, Stories from the Magic Canoe of Wa'xaid tells the stories of Cecil Paul, a Xenaksiala elder, and includes tales of his experience, suffering and survival. The book is a remarkable and profound collection of reflections by one of North America’s most important Indigenous leaders.

Below is an excerpt:


Return of the G’psgolox Pole

After we won the case for the river, I went up to Kitlope alone and I meditate. Did it really happen? I remember my little granny telling me of a totem pole that was stolen. We would gather in our little grandmother’s house and very faintly I would remember her stories about the old totem pole and how it was taken against our people’s will. That was when the journey of the pole begun. They weren’t only going to destroy the Kitlope; they have already wounded it by taking the grave marker of a big hereditary chief from the Kitlope. And we don’t know where it is. From my little granny, she said, “Look for it.” I was ten years old when she told me that. Before the boat came in and they took me away and I ended up in Alberni. That was my parting thing with my little granny, “Look for the totem.” And, it took me I don’t know how many years to find it, and it was in Sweden.

My little sister and I talk about what I knew about it to my people, but very few people gave me help. I got a Christmas card from a friend from New York. “I have a young friend, works in New York,” she says. “Maybe she could find it.” She says, “I’ll look.” She sends me a Christmas card: “I couldn’t find it.” I spilled my guts out to a stranger in a coffee shop, and then I turned around and she was a beautiful young girl, Spanish, Montserrat Gonzales. I told her I was up in the mountains looking for a totem pole, and I can’t go up there anymore. It’s over the mountain; it’s over there. I close my eyes sometimes and the green grass, and it’s over there.

And she says, “Maybe I could be a help with this new technology? I’m the curator of this museum here.”

Oh, this Spanish girl caught me with Spanish eyes. Took her ten years. In that ten years, when I left her in that little coffee shop, I forgot about her. But she didn’t forget. Took her ten years to figure out where the totem pole is. She says to me, “I went further up the mountain,” and what she found in the records was something awful. Swedish consulate was stationed in Rupert and the Indian agent that looked after my people in Kitlope was stationed in Bella Coola. What she found was the correspondence of these two men, on how to steal a totem pole. Wow. It was awful.

I said, “Itemize it down. I’m going to call two friends.”

I called Sister Louisa. She was the school coordinator in Prince Rupert and I said, “It’s important that you come.”

And she said, “I’ll be there on a certain date.”

Gerald was still the chief because he was re-elected. I went looking for Gerald, I said, “I want to show you guys something.”

And the day came, the three of us walked in. I remember I told the Spanish girl to itemize it down to how she found it. She had a little piece of paper. I said, “One of you read it out loud so the three of us could hear.” The very first line is: “Ten years ago, Cecil and I went on a journey.” I realize now that it was the mountain of waves going across the Atlantic Ocean. It was some big waves. I seen only big hills, you know why I couldn’t walk on water, I couldn’t go halfway. I’m in my canoe, trying to paddle, trying to look for it; I couldn’t make it.

The negotiations for that totem pole to come back were something hectic. When they weren’t going any place, then Gerald said, “What do you think if we offer them a replica in exchange for that pole?”

“I’m not the owner of that pole,” I say. “Chief G’psgolox is, my older brother. We cannot do nothing without his consent.”

So in that little room they say, “Phone your brother and tell him. See if it’ll be all right.”

I finally got through. I says, “We’re in a dilemma here. We’re standing still. Gerald suggested if we make a replica in exchange for your pole.”

There was a moment silence, maybe three, four seconds. And my brother came on, “Whatever it takes. You go for it.” And that was all we needed. And the next time we meet with the Swedish government, our little delegation put that on the table.

In our culture, when a big chief dies he makes two carpenters build it. And when the pole falls, it go back to womb of Mother Earth. When that thing is almost decayed and back to the womb of Mother Earth, the new chief will take G’psgolox name, and he will build another totem pole. Now when they have taken this totem pole and cut it down, my culture believes – strongly believes – that they could never raise it up again. It’s against our law, our nuyem, built into our mind. And we had a hard time with the Swedish government because they wanted us to make a museum. When I had our people together, I say, “Look at our land! No ships come in, this is the end of the road. And if you’re gonna build a museum, it’s got to have proper heat and things. We’d need a lot of people to pay a few dollars to come. No way can you keep a building to do what the Swedish government wants us to do.” So I asked, “Come aboard my way of thinking and refuse those conditions.” My government was still trying to raise money for a museum, but we couldn’t find no funding.

Quite a debate about that, finally the Swedish museum say, “Okay, we’ll let you take it back.”

And when we came back, the little totem-pole committee said, “Dan and Cecil will go get the trees for the totem poles. We need two poles.” I’m old; I couldn’t climb around a mountain anymore. I had a friend, Bill Munro, who works for West Fraser who have the tree-farm licence for the Kitlope. We had to figure out the funding to pay for the totem poles. Who’s going to carve it?

Still the Swedish government didn’t understand what a totem pole means to our people. “Why do you want that old pole? Why don’t you keep that replica that you are going to give us and put it back where the graveyard is?”

I said, “That’s the difference between a museum and our Indian culture. You have stolen this from our graveyard. Its roots are there. The people that carved it could feel the sweat, the calluses on their hands building this totem pole. It don’t belong in a foreign land. Let us take it home; we’ll give you the new one. In our culture what this totem pole was meant to be, is back to where Chief G’psgolox is buried.” And that’s why we brought it back up to Kitlope – and it’s there now.

They put a replica up in Sweden, and the Swedish people came when they raised the other replica in Misk’usa. I was in the hospital here – I couldn’t make it. Great-granddaughter of the consulate from Sweden came up to Kitlope. She came to visit me in the hospital, and we had a long talk. I say, “I forgave your great-grandfather long ago. I forgave long ago.” And there was something else. That original totem pole I gave her permission to go and see. Today the old pole has been set free. It is no longer in shackles. Bringing cultures together. We are all one creation.

The Spanish girl who found the pole in Sweden, Montserrat Gonzalez, was at the museum for seven years then she disappeared, and no one has heard from her since. We wanted to thank her. I ask people to try and find her like the totem pole, but nothing turn up.

Can I smoke? More than half-dead and I am still smoking.