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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Nuxalk First Nation repatriates totem pole from Royal BC Museum

Nuxalk’mc celebrate as totem pole begins repatriation journey from Victoria to Bella Coola

By Michael John Lo
February 13, 2023
Indigenous
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Nuxalk First Nation repatriates totem pole from Royal BC Museum

Nuxalk’mc celebrate as totem pole begins repatriation journey from Victoria to Bella Coola

By Michael John Lo
Feb 13, 2023
A crowd gathers to watch the lowering of the totem pole on Feb. 13. Photos: Michael John Lo / Capital Daily
A crowd gathers to watch the lowering of the totem pole on Feb. 13. Photos: Michael John Lo / Capital Daily
Indigenous
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Nuxalk First Nation repatriates totem pole from Royal BC Museum

Nuxalk’mc celebrate as totem pole begins repatriation journey from Victoria to Bella Coola

By Michael John Lo
February 13, 2023
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Nuxalk First Nation repatriates totem pole from Royal BC Museum
A crowd gathers to watch the lowering of the totem pole on Feb. 13. Photos: Michael John Lo / Capital Daily

The crowd erupted in cheers as a Nuxalk totem pole touched the ground after leaving the Royal BC Museum for the first time in decades this Monday morning. Nuxalk First Nation members are marking the occasion—the repatriation of a totem pole that had been taken away from the Nuxalk lands for more than a century—with two days of ceremony held at the nearby Mungo Martin House.

When Jerilynn Webster saw the totem pole on the ground, freshly uncovered from its plastic wrapping, she saw a new beginning.

“Today is a day that we sing victory songs,” she said. “Today was an uplifting of our family and our nation.”

Webster was among the group that awakened the totem pole with song and ceremony once the pole had been set down next to the Mungo Martin House. The Snuxyaltwa family raised funds for about 65 Nuxalk family members to come to Victoria and witness the moment.

The pole will be left there for another day of ceremony before it is loaded into a truck for its long journey back into Nuxalk territory, accompanied by a convoy of returning Nuxalk’mc (Nuxalk people). It’s expected to stop by Williams Lake on Feb. 15 before arriving in Bella Coola on Feb. 20.

Removed from its home for 110 years

The repatriated totem pole was once a longhouse entrance pole carved by the late Snuxyaltwa (Louie Snow). [Note: The Snuxyaltwa family name is also the hereditary chief name it passes from generation to generation through potlach ceremonies] Around the time of its carving in the mid-1800s the Nuxalk nation spanned across the Bella Coola valley and its population numbered in the tens of thousands, Sage Birchwater wrote in the Williams Lake Tribune. But smallpox arrived in the 1860s, massively reducing and dispersing the Nuxalk population.

The totem pole stood in the village of Talleomy until 1913 when it was taken to Victoria. Many poles were removed from their homes around that time; the early 1900s saw a flurry of theft as well as unscrupulous purchases by museums and collectors looking to add First Nations cultural artifacts to their collections. More on that history, and repatriation efforts last year, here.

The Nuxalk totem has been a prominent part of the Royal BC Museum (RBCM)’s third-floor Totem Hall since the exhibit’s opening in 1969.

In October of 2019, a delegation of Nuxalk hereditary chiefs, including Hereditary Chief Yulm Snuxyaltwa (Deric Snow), visited the RBCM to begin repatriation talks.

The Royal BC Museum’s CEO at the time, Jack Lohman, was recorded telling those assembled that he recognized the pole needed to return to its territories.

But three years later, Snuxyaltwa filed a lawsuit in 2022 against the museum demanding that the totem pole be returned to his family, alleging that there had been no “meaningful progress” despite repeated follow up from the Nuxalk.

In the civil claim, it said that the museum had claimed that logistical concerns were the primary reason for the delay. Then last month, the RBCM finally presented the February repatriation date.

Nuxalk hereditary leaders, family members, and friends gather inside the Mungo Martin house to hold ceremony and celebrate.

To remove the totem pole, the museum took down three interior walls and reinforced floors so that a crane could lift the five-metre-tall pole up and away from its former spot on the third floor through the roof and onto the ground, said Janet Hanuse, a vice-president of the museum’s Indigenous collections and repatriation department.

It may seem like a big move, but it’s important to remember that the pole was taken from Nuxalk territory to the museum in the first place, said Ry Moran, UVic’s associate university librarian for reconciliation.

“So the fact that it’s going is just that pole completing its journey and going back to where it really should have rightfully been,” Moran said.

It’s positive to see that repatriation efforts are gathering steam as well as increasing in size and complexity, he added.

Opportunities to set past wrongs right

The BC government moved to enact the principles of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIPA, based on the international declaration UNDRIP) into provincial law in 2019. That declaration includes rights to access and maintain cultural sites, and to use and control ceremonial objects, and it calls on states to “enable the access and/or repatriation of ceremonial objects and human remains in their possession through fair, transparent and effective mechanisms developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples concerned.”

The repatriation of Indigenous possessions should not come as a surprise, given that this has been debated worldwide for almost half a century, Moran said.

RBCM's Janet Hanuse (left) speaks to a reporter beside the Nuxalk totem pole

“We’re doing the right thing and correcting these past mistakes,” he said. “Seeing these objects go back home and making the necessary investments within [First] Nations to properly house or otherwise hold these objects as they see fit.”

For Nuxalk’mc, totem poles are a sign of sovereignty and are of great importance. Snuxyaltwa says that his great-grandfather’s spirit will finally be at rest when the pole is returned to its home at Bella Coola.

The costs of the repatriation are being covered by the RBCM, CBC reported. That also includes overnight security for the pole before it leaves Victoria. There are still more to be repatriated from the RBCM to the Nuxalk Nation. In a statement to Capital Daily, the museum said that those conversations will begin once the current pole’s repatriation process is complete.

About thirty BC First Nations are in varying stages of the repatriation process, according to Hanuse. That process can include not only the return of important items—such as this Nuxalk totem pole or the Boston Pole that Haíłzaqv members received in a small private ceremony last year—but also coordinating travel for nation members, constructing facilities to display the items, and securing funding for either.

“If we are serious about protecting and upholding human rights in society, then repatriation is something that we have to embrace as a society,” said Moran. “[It] is of vital importance to correct some devastating past wrongs.”

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