Off the shores of Canada, in the cryptic beauty of British Columbia, lies the Nass Valley, the birthplace of a sacred artefact that embarked on a journey of almost a century and thousands of miles before finally returning home. The Ni’isjoohl memorial pole, the first totem pole repatriated from a British museum back to its indigenous community, has infused a newfound optimism in the ongoing consensus about museum repatriation.
In the annals of the late 1920s, the Canadian ethnographer Marius Barbeau, paid visits to the Ank’idaa village nestled amid the scenic mountains and waterways of the Nass Valley, perennially in search of noteworthy exhibitions for museums across the globe. Among his discoveries, the Ni’isjoohl memorial pole drew the attention of the, soon to be renamed, National Museum of Scotland.
The Museum acquired the pole for an amount between C$400 and C$600 of the time. A summer day in 1929 saw him and his team discreetly remove the eleven-meter red cedar pole, which was revered as a memorial to a warrior named Ts’wawit, while the Nisga’a people were preoccupied with hunting, work, or fishing.
Barbeau’s team shipped the dismantled pole more than 6,700km away to Edinburgh via Prince Rupert, another jewel of British Columbia, sparking a century-long estrangement. Commenting on this, Dr Amy Parent, whose lineage traces back to the commissioner of the pole, told the BBC, “We never gave him permission to steal our pole.”
Nearly a century later, joyous chants resounded in the verdant Nass Valley as hundreds of people celebrated the return of the Ni’isjoohl memorial pole. It has found a new abode in the Nisga’a Museum, a work of modern architecture encased in glass, with panoramic views of snow-capped mountains.
On the day of its arrival, the pole basked in the sun after an age in a faraway land. Accompanied by hundreds, children laid cedar branches around the pole witnessed by eager onlookers capturing the momentous occasion. The ‘rematriation’ held a profound significance for families like Dr Parent’s, who are part of a 600-member indigenous nation.
Dr Parent, along with others, formed a delegation last year to request the repatriation of the pole from the National Museum of Scotland. Their plea, unmarred by pre-existing conditions, was met with an overwhelming wave of empathy and understanding, ultimately leading to the pole’s homecoming.
The decision was unanimous – the Ni’isjoohl memorial pole was going home. “This is the place where the spiritual and cultural significance for the pole is most keenly felt, and it makes absolute sense for it to be here with its people,” declared Chanté St Clair Inglis, National Museum of Scotland’s head of collections services.
The pole’s physical journey began in the summer, involving diligent manoeuvering and a transatlantic trip by the Royal Canadian Air Force. Its arrival has enabled community members to relive the heroic story of Ts’wawit and understand the artefact’s significance. Comments Dr Parent, “We’ve always wanted our children to not work so hard in order to understand the stories of who we are.”
The re-emergence of the Ni’isjoohl memorial pole has triggered wider discussions about repatriation as museums grapple with the repatriation claims from indigenous peoples. Chip Colwell, an anthropologist and museum repatriation expert, believes this episode underscores the potential of the museum community towards undoing colonial damage and predicts an increase in “the return of items of great ritual or religious significance.”
Recent events abroad, such as pledges by France to return looted treasures, suggests a slow yet positive change in museum practices. Colwell said observing the fate of Nigeria’s and Greece’s requests for repatriation of the Benin Bronzes and the Elgin Marbles respectively would be interesting.
At the heart of these repatriation requests are indigenous communities such as the Nisga’a Nation, who see these artefacts as an essential part of their survival as indigenous people, especially in light of the historical policies in Canada supportive of cultural erasure of indigenous communities.
Embracing the timely return of the Ni’isjoohl memorial pole on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Eva Clayton, a residential school survivor and Nisga’a Nation president, referred to the gesture by Scotland as an important step in healing past wounds, calling it a “reconciliation”. This event may well herald forthcoming homecomings; it is, after all, the triumphant glimmer of repatriation, shining brightly in the annals of cultural history – a beacon of light guiding a road less travelled.