Totem pole stolen from Nisga’a Nation to be 'rematriated' by Scotland

The House of Ni’isjoohl memorial pole will return to the Nass Valley from Scotland in September.

Totem pole stolen from Nisga’a Nation in Canada to be given back by National Museum of Scotland after 95 years Neil Hanna

A historic totem pole stolen from modern-day British Columbia almost a century ago is set to be returned to its rightful owners, the Nisga’a Nation.

The House of Ni’isjoohl memorial pole will return to the Nass Valley from Scotland in September.

The delegation from the Nisga’a Nation have not seen the 37ft wooden Ni’isjoohl memorial carving since it was stolen from a village by Canadian anthropologist Marius Barbeau in 1929.

Made in the 1860’s, the pole 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 will mark only the second time a European institution has returned previously-stolen First Nation artefacts.

Its rematriation comes after year-long discussions and close collaboration between NMS and the Nisga’a Lisims Government (NLG).

The term “rematriation” is said to reframe the concept of “repatriation” by grounding the process of recovering belongings in Indigenous law — and is more closely in alignment with Nisg̱a’a matrilineal society.

On Monday, a delegation from NLG travelled to Edinburgh to oversee the start of the House of Ni’isjoohl memorial carving’s safe return.

Sim’oogit Ni’isjoohl, Chief Earl Stephens said: “In Nisg̱a’a culture, we believe that this pole is alive with the spirit of our ancestors.

“After nearly 100 years, we are finally able to bring our dear relative home to rest on Nisg̱a’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.”

The 37ft hand-carved pole will be transported to Terrace, British Columbia, and then driven in a family procession to the Nisg̱a’a Village of Lax̱g̱alts’ap in the Nass Valley.

It will be housed at Hli G̱oothl Wilp-Adoḵshl Nisg̱a’a – the Nisg̱a’a Museum.

A public arrival ceremony will then be held at Hli G̱oothl Wilp-Adoḵshl Nisg̱a’a on September 29, with the pole still enclosed within its protective box with a Nisg̱a’a feast to follow.

The pole will be raised in the following days and available for the public to view later in October.

Sigidimnak’ Noxs Ts’aawit, Dr. Amy Parent added: “We are grateful to collectively tell a new story that turns the colonial gaze onto itself by acknowledging the complexities of our pole’s theft, its intergenerational absence from our community and the persistence needed to ensure that justice for our ancestors prevails.

“This new story also highlights the responsible commitments made by many who have demonstrated to our global community that it is possible to do the right thing by returning our ancestors, cultural treasures and belongings back to us, their rightful relatives.”

Eva Clayton, President of Nisg̱a’a Lisims Government: “Our hearts are at peace knowing that we are changing history with a precedent-setting transformational story of collaboration with the people of Scotland and Canada.

“It is an honour for the Nisg̱a’a Nation to be standing beside Wilp Ni’isjoohl at this historic moment in time.

“We are grateful to be alongside them, while having our treaty partners next to us to unwind some of the injustices to our history as Nisg̱a’a people.”

Dr. Chris Breward, Director of National Museums Scotland said: “Since the transfer of the Memorial Pole was agreed last December, our collections care teams have been planning for the complex task of carefully lowering and transporting it in what is the first return of its type by a UK institution.

“We are pleased to have reached the point where that work is now underway, and we look forward to welcoming the Nisg̱a’a delegation to the Museum in August before we bid the Pole farewell.”

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