Stolen totem pole to be returned by museum after almost a century

The totem pole has been on display in the National Museum of Scotland since the 1930s.

Stolen totem pole to be returned by National Museum of Scotland after almost a century Neil Hanna

A historic totem pole stolen from modern-day British Columbia almost a century ago is set to be returned to its place of origin.

Nisga’a first nation leaders met with bosses from the National Museum of Scotland (NMS) in for talks on the repatriation of the wooden Ni’isjoohl memorial carving, not seen since it was taken from a village by Canadian anthropologist Marius Barbeau in 1929, in August.

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 NMS almost 70 years later, but a request was made to transfer it home earlier this year.

That was formally agreed yesterday by the museum’s board of trustee and subsequently approved by the cabinet secretary for the constitution, external affairs and culture.  

Dr Chris Breward, director of NMS said: “We are committed to promoting understanding and dialogue with respect to those parts of the museum’s collection associated with our nation’s colonial history and its difficult legacies. 

“The fact that our trustees have agreed to this request demonstrates our readiness to act on this commitment. We are pleased to have reached this agreement and to be able to transfer the memorial pole to its people and to the place where its spiritual significance is most keenly understood.

“We hope this is not the end of the process but the next step in a fruitful and ongoing relationship with the Nisga’a.” 

The Ni’isjoohl Memorial Pole was carved from red cedar in 1855 by artist Oyea Tait and his assistant carver, Gwanes, in memory of Ts’aawit, a Nisga’a chief of British Columbia.

It shows a series of interlocking figures relating to Ts’aawit’s family history through his ancestors, family crests, and his clan. 

The pole originally stood in front of the house of Ts’aawit’s relatives in Ank’idaa village on the Nass River.

Chief Earl Stephens of Nisga’a Nation added: “In Nisga’a culture, we believe that this pole is alive with the spirit of our ancestors. After nearly one hundred years, we are finally able to bring our dear relative home to rest on Nisga’a lands. 

“It means so much for us to have the Ni’isjoohl memorial pole returned to us, so that we can connect our family, nation and our future generations with our living history.”  

Ian Russell, chair of the board of trustees of NMS, said the decision to transfer the pole “is not to be taken lightly” and confirmed arrangements to transport the pole to Canada were being made.

Cabinet secretary for the constitution, external affairs and culture, Angus Robertson said: “I welcome the decision taken by the NMS board of trustees to return the Ni’isjoohl memorial pole to its place of origin.

“It follows a deeply moving recent meeting with the Nisga’a delegation when they came to Scotland to explain the huge importance of the pole to their culture, people and community.”

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