Indigenous leaders welcome historic repatriation of stolen Nisga’a memorial totem pole
by Melissa Shaw
SFU education professor and Canada Research Chair Amy Parent was among Indigenous leaders who traveled to Scotland in August to discuss repatriation of a long-stolen memorial totem pole—a journey that recently led to an agreement for its return home.
Parent, whose Nisga’a name is Sigidimnak Noxs Ts’aawit (Mother of the Raven Warrier Chief), led the delegation with Chief Ni’isjoohl (Earl Stephens) and Shawna Mackay from the House of Ni’isjoohl. The Nisga’a delegation was supported by Hlgu Aama Gat, Donald Leeson (Chief Councillor Laxgalt’sap Village Government), Apdii Laxha, Andrew Robinson (Nisga’a Lisims industry relations manager), Mmihlgum Maakskwhl Gakw (Pamela Brown), and Theresa Schober (Nisga’a Museum curator and director) who acted as witnesses, speakers, and negotiators with the delegation.
The delegation’s discussions with museum staff and the Government of Scotland resulted in an agreement to repatriate the totem pole three months later. The memorial totem pole will be returned to the House of Ni’iisjoohl and will be placed in the Nisga’a Museum with transport plans to be finalized in the new year.
In a Q&A interview, Parent, who holds SFU’s Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Education and Governance, discusses the journey to this historic decision, why it is culturally significant and how it will advance reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.
What is the importance of this project for education and reconciliation?
It is a precedent-setting project for the international Indigenous community in terms of repatriation of a totem pole out of the United Kingdom.
It will be the first time we see a totem pole come out of the UK and only the second time in history that a totem pole has been returned or repatriated from Europe. It is also the first time that our nation has seen the return of a pole to our motherlands from an international museum.
It is one large step forward for our family and nation’s healing journey. It is one small step forward for the reparative work that is required of all museums with imperial and colonial legacies to begin returning Indigenous people’s cultural treasures that have been stolen, if we want to begin decolonizing our institutions.
There’s a story and a history connected to the memorial totem pole; can you tell us more about that?
The pole itself is a family memorial pole. As Nisga’a peoples you are born into your Wilp or house structure, which is considered to be an extended family. From there we are divided into four matrilineal clans, which are based on different animals – for example, I am from the House of Ni’isjoohl and am a member of the Ganada (frog) clan.
We would have a house pole in front of our longhouse to tell a story of our house and our ownership to our lands and our waterways since time immemorial. The carved crests in the pole also specify names that are carried by family members in a house; and convey our relationships with animals and supernatural beings on our house territory.
The House of Ni’isjoohl is one of approximately 50 houses within the Nisga’a Nation. The Ni’isjoohl memorial pole is a house pole that was carved and erected in the 1860s. The pole tells the story of Ts’wawit, a warrior who was next in line to be chief before he was killed in a conflict with a neighbouring Nation.
The house pole, like others carved in the Nisga’a carving tradition, represents a chapter of the Peoples’ cultural sovereignty, and is a living constitutional and visual record. The pole holds significant knowledge within its carvings, and will serve as a form of curriculum for the next generation of Nisga’a citizens to learn our oral history.
The pole was situated in one of our ancient villages known as Ankida’a and in 1929 it was one of several poles stolen by colonial ethnographer Marius Barbeau, with the Ni’isjoohl pole being sold to the Royal Scottish Museum (now National Museum of Scotland). Nisga’a Chief Duuk (William Moore) and I co-wrote a chapter drawing from oral history and historical records to provide a more detailed account of the story of the pole’s theft for the book called Scotland’s Transnational Heritage, Legacies of Empire and Slavery.
What was it like to see this long-stolen cultural treasure for the first time?
A strong mixture of emotions was definitely present for us, in terms of the strategy we had to enact both culturally and politically. The protocols that we needed to carry out spiritually for the pole were quite significant. We were really grateful to have strong collaboration with our local village, the Laxgalt'ap Village government and the Nisga’a Lisims Government who also sent negotiators and representatives with us.
We came into the museum in full regalia, singing and drumming. We set the agenda and informed them that we were there based on our laws to have a Nation-to-Nation discussion.
We could feel the pole’s presence – its living spirit inside. We were there to wake up that spirit and connect with our ancestors. We could feel a sigh of relief as we walked into that room. We invited museum staff to be present to see and feel the impact of the pole’s removal on our family and witness the emotions that we experienced.
We spoke to the pole in our language and carried out a ceremony, fed it with traditional foods from our territory, sang the Nisga’a peace song and provided the museum staff with witness gifts before proceeding with formal negotiations and discussions. We were also invited to give a formal presentation at the University of St. Andrews.
We had to leave with a promise committed to us but that was not on paper yet. We had to leave after being reconnected with a family member that had been gone for over 90 years – the emotions certainly hit me as we said goodbye.
When we returned home there was unanimous agreement in our house that the pole would be returned to the Nisga’a Museum in the village of Laxgalts'ap. The next three months involved discussions with four different governments and two museums and working through all these different laws.
We had an incredibly strong team who worked together with our minds and hearts as one. I’m absolutely grateful for the continued support that we have collectively received from many people inside and outside our nation.
What are the next steps in the repatriation process and when the pole will be coming home?
The legal considerations around the transfer of legal title of the pole and its transport will be discussed in January. We also need to meet with the Nisga’a Museum conservators to figure out the best season, in terms of humidity and temperature, to take the glass windows of the front of the building and accommodate the totem pole. Our family and nation will also need time to prepare a feast in accordance with our protocols, laws and traditions.
You mentioned making history, can you talk about the global interest in the memorial pole’s repatriation and how this may indicate or influence a shift in thinking about history and culture?
We have been incredibly appreciative of the media who have been really strong advocates for its return. You can never really predict what’s going to happen. We were grateful to get a grant that allowed the majority of the delegation to travel to Scotland. We were determined to have the pole returned to us but we weren’t sure what kind of conversation we were going to have with the museum or the Scottish government.
Given the history of repatriation practices in the UK we were advised not to set our expectations too high. We also didn’t know if the pole was going to be in good enough condition to be moved. We hope to inspire others and recognize that what might seem impossible is possible when it comes to repatriation. Justice for our ancestors will prevail.
We were heartened to see that the UK agreed to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which was part of our argument that as signatories to UNDRIP they needed to enact that in meaningful ways. We've also been really appreciative of our treaty partners, the government of Canada and the province who have been advocates with us in this process and have been standing beside us.