History

The long journey home

After nearly 100 years, the Ni’isjoohl Memorial Pole stolen from the Nisga’a Nation and displayed in the National Museum of Scotland will be repatriated

  • Jan 10, 2023
  • 961 words
  • 4 minutes
Sim'oogit Ni'isjool (Mr. Earl Stephens) and Sigidimnak’ Noxs Ts’aawit (Dr. Amy Parent) of Nisga'a Nation with the Memorial Pole. (Photo: Neil Hanna)
Sim'oogit Ni'isjool (Mr. Earl Stephens) and Sigidimnak’ Noxs Ts’aawit (Dr. Amy Parent) of Nisga'a Nation with the memorial pole. (Photo: Neil Hanna)
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In northwestern British Columbia’s Nass Valley, ocean inlets and serpentine rivers carve through mountains, ancient forests and otherworldly lava fields. Like the waters, the Nisga’a Nation, who’ve called the valley home since time immemorial, have long carved their memories, laws and beliefs into monumental house poles and memorial poles.

One summer day in 1929, residents of the Ank’idaa village, a large Nisga’a community on an island in the Nass River a few kilometres upriver from modern-day Lax̱g̱alts’ap, were away hunting and gathering food. That’s when Marius Barbeau, a prolific pole collector, ethnographer and museum curator, stole the pole. The Ni’isjoohl Memorial Pole, as it’s now known, was toppled and then towed down the Nass River, to be sold to the Royal Museum of Scotland (now the National Museum of Scotland). By 1930, it was on display in Edinburgh.

The village of Ank'idaa in 1913. Pole of Hlidax is the tall pole in the centre left of the frame; Pole of Luuya'as is on the right. Photograph by C.F. Newcombe. (Credit: Dr. George and Joanne MacDonald research archive/Simon Fraser University)
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It wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last sacred object to be taken from the Nisga’a. Like Indigenous peoples across Canada, the Nisga’a have endured the horrors of colonization for generations. Decimated by illness, they were stripped of their traditional lands and their culture was criminalized. Ceremonies such as the potlatch, during which totem poles were often raised, were outlawed. Totem poles — and other outward signs of Nisga’a spirituality, heritage and art that weren’t hidden — were destroyed or taken by traders and sold to collectors around the world.

The Ni’isjoohl Memorial Pole was carved by artist Oyay Tait and his assistant, Gwanes, in memory of Ts’awit, a warrior in line to be chief who was killed protecting his nation. Raised in 1860, the pole tells the story of Ts’awit’s ancestral wilp (family group or house) and details the wilp’s connection to the land and the Nisga’a people.

“It’s hard to put into words how many layers of meaning it has,” says Amy Parent, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous education and governance at Simon Fraser University and current holder of the female version of the name Ts’awit — her Nisga’a name is Sigidimnak’ Noxs Ts’aawit. She compares the pole to a family album combined with a page of the Canadian Constitution. “But when a pole is carved and the ceremonies are done, the pole itself gains a spirit.”

But for Barbeau, the Ni’isjoohl pole was just another acquisition.

Barbeau “had a catalogue,” Parent says. “He would take a photo of a pole. And then on the back, he’d write a price and then [with permission of the Canadian government] shop them to museums around the world,” says Parent. “He quoted $400 to $600 for our pole.”

In the Nisga’a territory, however, the pole was never forgotten.

“This was our living ancestor,” says Parent, “a living constitutional and visual archive.”

On May 11, 2000, the Nisga’a and the governments of Canada and British Columbia signed the Nisga’a Final Agreement, the first modern treaty in the province, which provides the Nisga’a People with ownership of 2,019 square kilometres of land and rights to an annual allocation of salmon and other traditional foods. The treaty was also the first to include a provision for the return of ancestral items housed in Canadian museums.

Ni’isjoohl Memorial Pole in Ank’idaa near Nass River in British Columbia, 1927. (Photo: Canadian Museum of History, 69638)
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Ni’isjoohl Memorial Pole on display at the National Museum of Scotland. (Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland)
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By 2011, Wilp-Adokshl Nisga’a (Nisga’a Museum) opened in Lax̱g̱altsʼap. The purpose-built museum already houses upwards of 300 repatriated objects. Theresa Schober, the museum’s director and curator, hopes this is just the beginning — one of the museum’s mandates is to search internationally for other sacred items. “An incalculable number of cultural belongings were removed from the valley from the late 1800s through the early 1900s,” she says.

High on the wish list for repatriation was the Ni’isjoohl Memorial Pole. Parent says family Elders once tried to retrieve it, but it wasn’t until recently that the Nation had healed enough to have the critical expertise and infrastructure in place to arrange for repatriation. When Parent received a grant for what she calls a high-risk, high-reward research project, she was able to delve further into the history of the pole and locate essential documentation — proving the theft and supporting the case for repatriation.

Nisga'a delegation led by Sim'oogit Ni'isjool (Mr. Earl Stephens) and Sigidimnak’ Noxs Ts’aawit (Dr. Amy Parent) at the National Museum of Scotland. (Photo: Neil Hanna)
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So in August 2022, Parent was part of a seven-person Nisga’a delegation that journeyed to the National Museum of Scotland. When they arrived, they were among the first Nisga’a in almost 100 years to set eyes on the pole. “As we got close to it, it felt like the breath of our ancestors let out a sigh of relief,” recalls Parent. “It was palpable.”

After ceremonies — which included bringing food to the pole — the delegation entered negotiations. “We explained our protocols and laws and that we were there to repatriate the pole and bring it home to where it belongs.” But in what Parent calls a clash of world views, the National Museum of Scotland was initially reluctant to proceed without a request from the Canadian or B.C. government. The Nisga’a negotiated the pole’s repatriation as a sovereign nation.

As discussions wrapped up, Parent says the delegation joked about just taking the pole home with them — but the National Museum of Scotland requested three months to make the decision. On December 1, 2022, the answer came back: the Ni’isjoohl memorial pole will be the first totem pole repatriated from the United Kingdom and the second to be returned from a European museum.

Soon the pole will be transferred home to Nisga’a land and take a position of honour in Wilp-Adokshl Nisga’a (Nisga’a Museum). Parent hopes this is the start of a new chapter.

“We hope that our story inspires our Indigenous relatives around the world to know that the impossible is possible when challenging colonial structures for the repatriation of our stolen cultural treasures. Justice for our ancestors will prevail.”

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