A 37-foot, hand-carved totem pole that has been on display in the National Museum of Scotland for 94 years is going home. Next month, it will make its 4,200-mile journey to the Nisg̱a’a nation in western British Columbia.
The “rematriation” of the pole is the result of a year-long discussion and close collaboration between the Nisg̱a’a Nation and the museum.
The term “rematriation” reframes the concept of “repatriation” by grounding the process of recovering belongings in Indigenous law — and is more closely in alignment with Nisga’a matrilineal society.
“Since the transfer of the Memorial Pole was agreed last December, our teams have been planning the complex task of carefully lowering and transporting it in what is the first return of its type by a UK national institution,” said Dr Chris Breward, Director of National Museums Scotland.
Following months of preparatory work, a delegation of family members and supporters from the Nisg̱a’a Lisims Government have travelled to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh to oversee the start of the return.
A closed spiritual ceremony was held by Nisaga’a delegates on August 28, to prepare the pole for its journey home.
The 37-foot, hand-carved pole will be transported to Terrace, British Columbia by Canadian military aircraft, and then driven in a family procession to the Nisg̱a’a Village of Lax̱g̱alts’ap in the Nass Valley where it will be housed at Hli G̱oothl Wilp-Adoḵshl Nisg̱a’a - the Nisga’a Museum.
A public arrival ceremony will 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.
The memorial pole, made of red cedar, belongs to the House of Ni’isjoohl from the G̱anada (frog clan) in the Nisg̱a’a Nation.
In 1860, House of Ni’isjoohl Matriarch Joanna Moody commissioned the pole to be carved by Nisg̱a’a master carver Oyee to honour her family member Ts’awit, who was next in line to be chief. Ts’awit was also a warrior who died protecting his family and nation.
The pole originally stood in front of the house of Ts’aawit's relatives in Ank’idaa village on the Nass River. According to the museum records, Marius Barbeau, an ethnographer and curator at the National Museum of Canada, purchased the pole from its Nisga’a owners on behalf of the Royal Museum of Scotland, which later became the National Museum of Scotland and it went on display the following year.
The Nisga’a say, however, that the pole was stolen. The Museum accepts that it was unlikely that Barbeau had the right to take such an important cultural object.
“In Nisg̱a’a culture, we believe that this pole is alive with the spirit of our ancestors,” explains Sim’oogit Ni’isjoohl, Chief Earl Stephens. “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.”