First Nation leaders are set to meet with bosses from Scotland’s largest museum for talks on the repatriation of a historic totem pole stolen from modern-day British Columbia almost a century ago.
The delegation from the Nisga’a Nation have not seen the wooden Ni’isjoohl memorial carving since it was taken from a village by Canadian anthropologist Marius Barbeau in 1929.
The pole, which was made in the 1860’s, tells the story of Ts’wawit – a Nisga’a warrior who was next in line to be chief before he was killed in a conflict with a neighbouring Nation.
It was sold to the National Museum of Scotland (NMS) almost 70 years later, but its return would mark only the second time a European institution had repatriated previously stolen First Nation artefacts.
Leaders of the of the House of Nis’sjoohl – one of 50 in the Nisga’a Nation – said the pole’s recovery offered the museum the chance “to take first step towards reconciliation.”
Chief Earl Stephens said: “This will be the first time in living memory that members of the House of Nis’sjoohl will be able to see the memorial pole with our own eyes.
“This visit will be deeply emotional for us all.”
Chief Stephens, also known as Sim’oogit Ni’isjoohl, will join Dr. Amy Parent – Noxs Ts’aawit – and Shawna McKay as part of the group travelling to Edinburgh for the summit on August 22.
It is thought Barbeau took the pole without consent while the Nisga’a people were away from their villages along the Nass River for the annual hunting, fishing, and food harvesting season.
A replica has been constructed in the village of Laxgalts’ap and features intricate depictions of human figures and a raven, thought to represent the Nisga’a.
Dr Parent, Canada research chair in indigenous education and governance at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, said the artefact represented “a chapter of the Peoples’ cultural sovereignty and a living constitutional and visual record.”
She added: “The pole is a priceless belonging that our respected hereditary leaders have aptly called a cultural treasure.
“It tells the relationship of our house to the land and to our people. To have had it taken from us is to have removed a piece of our cultural identity and an integral part of the story of our nationhood.”
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples grants indigenous states the right to “seek access and/or repatriation of ceremonial objects and human remains in their possession through fair, transparent and effective mechanisms”.
However, the talks do not necessarily mean the artefact will be returned across the Atlantic. Just one First Nation totem pole has previously been recovered from Europe when the Haisla G’psgolox pole was repatriated from Sweden’s Museum of Ethnography in 2006.
NMS policy has a presumption against the deaccession and disposal of objects from its collection, including the permanent transfer of artefacts without the backing of a national government.
In 2019, human remains of the Beothuk elders Demasduwit and Nonosbawsut, were returned to the Mi’kmaq people in Newfoundland and Labrador after a seven-year battle which was only resolved when the Canadian government agreed they would be displayed in Quebec’s Canadian Museum of History rather than a provincial institution.
Misel Joe, the modern-day Beothuk chief who led the repatriation effort, was allowed to perform a “purification ceremony” on the remains, which were not on public display.
He later told broadcaster CBC: “Maybe what I need to do is go and dig up Robert Burns, maybe that will open somebody’s eyes.
“I mean, what’s the difference in me going to dig up Burns and bringing him back to study in Newfoundland than them taking the remains of our people to study for all these years?”
A spokeswoman for NMS said: “We welcome open dialogue and foster collaboration with communities for whom objects in the collection have special relevance.
“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 on it and share our procedure for considering requests for the transfer of objects.”