Nisga’a Nation celebrates return of totem after it was taken almost a century ago

Nisga'a Nation celebrates return of totem after it was taken almost a century ago
THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-National Museums Scotland
A ceremony will be held today by the Nisga'a Nation in northern British Columbia for a memorial totem that has gone to Scotland and back over the last century. The memorial totem pole is shown in a handout image provided by National Museums Scotland.

The return of a memorial totem pole to a remote community in northwestern B.C. nearly 100 years after it was taken allows the Nisga’a Nation to reach back for old values of respect, helping to chart a new path of reconciliation, the nation’s president says.

Eva Clayton said the Nisga’a people want the return of the memorial pole from the United Kingdom to be an example to other Indigenous nations, other countries and governments to see what their work with the National Museum of Scotland has accomplished.

“In bringing to light what can occur when people are treated with true dignity, respect and are honoured for their knowledge, this is reconciliation,” said Clayton as they prepared to welcome the totem’s return on Friday.

The totem belonged to the House of Ni’isjoohl from the Ganada, or frog clan. The clan’s matriarch Joanna Moody commissioned a master carver in 1860 to honour her family member, Ts’awit, a warrior who died protecting his family.

The 11-metre, red-cedar pole was taken without permission in 1929 by an ethnographer researching life in the Nisga’a Village, and sold a year later to the museum in Scotland.

The “rematriation” of the pole came after a year of discussions between the nation and the museum. A delegation of family members and others with the Nisga’a government travelled to Edinburgh in August to oversee its return, which included a spiritual ceremony to prepare the pole for its long journey home.

Clayton said she expects there will be more celebrations marking the return of other Nisga’a treasures.

“This is precedent-setting, and we have a number of our citizens who have various pieces of artifacts in museums across Canada, if not the world,” she said.

John Giblin, keeper of global arts, cultures and design at the National Museum of Scotland, said in an interview this week that the transfer of the memorial pole from the museum back to the Nisga’a Nation was widely supported in Scotland.

“We’ll miss the pole, of course,” he said. “We’re very happy to be able to be supporting the transfer of the pole to return home to the Nass Valley, where its spiritual, cultural importance is most keenly felt.

“I think everybody is really behind this process, seeing the pole back at home for future generations of the Nisga’a Nation to enjoy in person.”

Murray Rankin, B.C.’s minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation, says the totem’s homecoming could be a catalyst that spreads worldwide as more countries and institutions face requests by Indigenous Peoples to return their stolen artifacts.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 29, 2023.

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