BC First Nation arrives in Scotland, asks museum to return totem pole taken in 1929

If they manage to repatriate the pole, the nation said it plans to erect it inside the Nisga’a Museum, which houses more than 300 cultural relics.


Delegates from the Nisga’a First Nation are in Scotland this week to discuss the repatriation of a memorial totem pole they say was stolen nearly a century ago.

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Seven members, including Nisga’a Nation chief Earl Stephens, traveled from British Columbia and are scheduled to meet staff, curators and politicians at the National Museum of Scotland on Monday.

“This will be the first time in living memory that members of the House of Ni’isjoohl will be able to see the memorial pole with our own eyes,” Stephens said in a press release. “This visit will be deeply emotional for all of us.”

The Nisga’a Totem Pole, also known as the Ni’isjoohl Memorial Pole, was hand carved in the 1860s. It depicts the story of Ts’wawit, a warrior who was next in line to be chief before die in a conflict with a neighboring nation.

The nation said the pole was taken in 1929 without its consent by ethnographer Marius Barbeau while members were away from their villages for the annual hunting and foraging season, and was later sold to the museum in Scotland.

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Amy Parent, Canada Research Professor in Indigenous Education and Governance at Simon Fraser University and a representative of the nation, said returning the artifact will mean restoring a part of the nation’s cultural identity.

“I want our kids to wake up every day and not have to search so hard for a story of who we are,” he said in an interview.

She said the delegates intend to discuss their “exact intentions” with museum and government officials to request that legal title to the pole be transferred back to the nation.

“At this point, they have been positive in terms of their communication with us and their desire to make sure that they are being culturally respectful in hosting our delegation,” Parent said.

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“We are trying to be cautiously optimistic in terms of the conversation that will unfold.”

Parent said this is not the first time representatives of the Nisga’a Nation have traveled to Europe in an effort to identify and retrieve their cultural artifacts. She said a group had visited the National Museum of Scotland in 2018 but was told the post was too fragile to remove.

However, Parent said she later discovered that it had been moved when the museum underwent recent renovations.

“Leading Canadian experts have determined that the pole is fit to be moved and would not hesitate to say that it could withstand the journey back to Canada and back to our nation,” he said.

This motivated her decision to travel back to the UK in the hope of getting it back, she said.

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“I think they can help us rewrite history through this act of reparation,” Parent said. “This is the Scottish Government’s chance to show the world that UNDRIP really is more than symbolic. It is a legal instrument that can transform the lives of indigenous peoples globally, and we know the world is watching.”

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, or UNDRIP, was established in 2007 as a framework of minimum standards for the survival and well-being of indigenous peoples around the world.

National Museums Scotland, the body that oversees the museum, said in a statement that “we welcome open dialogue and encourage collaboration with communities for whom objects in the collection have special relevance.”

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“We look forward to hosting a delegation from the Nisga’a Nation at the National Museum of Scotland to view the memorial pole, share information about it and share our procedure for considering object transfer requests,” he said.

Parent said the nation is also waiting for the Scottish government and the National Museums of Scotland to come up with the bill for the totem’s return to BC.

“The onus should not be on us as a family or as a nation to have to pay for their return,” Parent said.

If they manage to repatriate the pole, the nation said it plans to erect it inside the Nisga’a Museum, which houses more than 300 cultural relics.

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