Inside the Nisga’a Nation’s Fight to Get a 36-Foot Totem Pole Back From Scotland

National Museums Scotland agreed to repatriate the object, which was stolen in 1929, following an in-person appeal by an Indigenous delegation

Sim'oogit Ni'isjoohl (Chief Earl Stephens) of the Nisga'a Nation with the Ni'isjoohl memorial pole
Sim’oogit Ni’isjoohl (Chief Earl Stephens) of the Nisga’a Nation with the Ni’isjoohl memorial pole Neil Hanna

Three years ago, Sigidimnak’ Noxs Ts’aawit (also known as Amy Parent) headed home to Nisga’a territory, a 780-square-mile valley of forests, streams and rugged lava fields, fringed by glacier-capped mountains on the northwestern side of the Canadian province of British Columbia.

Parent, a scholar specializing in Indigenous education and governance at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, had returned to her traditional territory to follow up on her research for a Nisga’a language revitalization project. After Parent passed along the information, she asked if she could use her research skills to assist the community with any other knowledge needs. An elder asked her to look into the Ni’isjoohl memorial pole, a hand-carved totem pole dated to the mid-19th century.

Nisga’a carvers had drawn on historical and contemporary photographs to create a replica of the totem pole, which was stolen from the First Nation in 1929 and sold to what is now the National Museum of Scotland. But before the Laxgalts’ap, a Nisga’a community of around 600 people, could complete ceremonies and raise the replica outside their community building, they needed more details on the original. “Sim’oogit Ni’isjoohl”—Chief Earl Stephens—“asked me to look for information about some of the names that were connected to the original Ni’isjoohl pole,” Parent recalls.

The Ni’isjoohl memorial pole
The Ni’isjoohl memorial pole Neil Hanna

During her search, Parent learned that a Nisga’a delegation had last visited the memorial pole in Scotland in 1991. “When they asked about repatriation, they were told the pole was too fragile to be moved,” she says. “But later the pole was moved when the museum underwent renovations.”

Parent’s investigation also uncovered a personal connection to the pole: Before it ended up at the Edinburgh museum, it had been stolen from her family.

Joanna Moody, Parent’s great-great-great-grandmother, commissioned the Ni’isjoohl pole in the 1860s. A resident of the village of Ank’idaa, a large Nisga’a community upriver from modern-day Laxgalts’ap, Moody asked master carver Oyay Tait and his assistant, Gwanes, to create a pole commemorating the story of Ts’wawit, a warrior in line to be chief who was killed while protecting his nation. The 36-foot pole also contains crests and images that detail the House of Ni’isjoohl’s connection to the land and the greater Nisga’a people.

“To see our pole mentioned in [museum] records was really disturbing,” says Parent. “It just made my stomach lurch.” It’s fitting, then, that Parent was at the forefront of a successful push to repatriate the pole, which will soon be returned to the Nisga’a Nation by the museum’s parent organization, National Museums Scotland (NMS).

Previously, “only one pole, the Haisla G’psgolox pole, had ever been repatriated from a European museum,” Parent says. “I was uncertain and afraid to dream, but I felt like the ancestors were behind me, offering support.”

Who are the Nisga’a?

One of dozens of culturally unique First Nations located in British Columbia, the Nisga’a Nation has lived in the Nass River Valley since time immemorial. Made up of four clans—Gisk’aast (Killer Whale/Owl), Ganada (Raven/Frog), Laxgibuu (Wolf/Bear) and Laxsgiik (Eagle/Beaver), in addition to dozens of extended family groups or houses known as wilps—the First Nation’s members traditionally followed a balanced rhythm of hunting, fishing and foraging.

Historically, the Nisga’a Nation’s cultural, social, spiritual, legal and economic system centered on the potlatch, a feast used to mark marriages, births and funerals, as well as to establish protocol for conferring names, developing laws, and establishing rights to hunting and fishing territories.

Nisga'a carver Calvin McNeil with his son, Jacob, in the Laxgalts'ap Carving Shed
Nisga'a carver Calvin McNeil with his son, Jacob, in the Laxgalts'ap Carving Shed Northern BC Tourism / Christos Sagiorgis

To record traditional histories known as adaawak, skilled Nisga’a artists carved towering pst’aan, or totem poles, out of the trunks of cedar trees. Breathed to life through ceremony, raised poles became beloved family treasures and political constitutions rolled into one.

The poles serve as a living curriculum for each generation of children, teaching them about Nisga’a history and way of life, according to Sim’oogit Duuk (William Moore), a Nisga’a chief.

The theft of a culture

Like other Indigenous peoples across Canada, the Nisga’a Nation experienced the horrors of colonization through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Decimated by illness, they were stripped of their traditional lands and saw their culture criminalized through the potlatch ban, a policy in effect from 1884 to 1951. An amendment to Canada’s 1876 Indian Act, the ban sought to assimilate Indigenous people by criminalizing their language, culture and governance and breaking their connection to the land. The amendment also outlawed the creation of sacred art.

“Within the Nisga’a context, missionaries evangelically invaded the Nass Valley and, for the most part, forced us to let go of our priceless cultural family belongings and possessions,” write Parent and Moore in Scotland’s Transnational Heritage: Legacies of Empire and Slavery.

Carvings in the Laxgalts'ap carving shed
Carvings in the Laxgalts'ap Carving Shed Northern BC Tourism / Christos Sagiorgis

Items that weren’t given up under duress were simply stolen. Beginning in 1927, Canadian ethnographer and museum curator Marius Barbeau regularly toured the Nass Valley, photographing all of the poles he encountered. “He made a catalog,” Parent says. “He would take a photo of a pole. And then on the back, he’d write a price and [with the permission of the Canadian government] shop [the poles] to museums around the world.”

In 1929, staff at the Royal Scottish Museum, a predecessor of the National Museum of Scotland, selected the Ni’isjoohl memorial pole from the photo catalog, paying between 400 and 600 Canadian dollars (around 6,500 to 9,800 Canadian dollars today) for Barbeau to acquire it on their behalf.

The Ni’isjoohl memorial pole was one of dozens of poles cut down by Barbeau and his team during the summer of 1929, when most Nisga’a people were away from home, either working in the canneries processing salmon or participating in the annual hunting, fishing and food harvesting season. Collected from several villages, the sacred belongings were bundled into rafts and drifted down the river. Moore recalls hearing stories of people standing on the riverbank watching their way of life literally float away.

Second to the loss of their young to residential schools, which saw Indigenous children forcibly separated from their families, abused, and indoctrinated with European and Christian values, the loss of the poles was shattering for the Nisga’a. “I marvel about the oral history that is carried forward to provide an important memory of the colonial storm that took the Ni’isjoohl pole to Scotland,” says Parent.

Recovering belongings

The groundwork for the totem pole’s repatriation was laid on May 11, 2000, when the Nisga’a and the governments of Canada and British Columbia signed the Nisga’aa Final Agreement, the first modern treaty in the province. In addition to codifying the Nisga’a’s right to self-governance, ownership of 780 square miles of ancestral land, and annual allocation of salmon and other traditional foods, the agreement was the country’s first to include a provision for the return of ancestral possessions housed in Canadian museums—recognition that Nisga’a belongings were never relinquished willingly.

Visitors learning about the history and culture of the Nisga'a people at the Nisga'a Museum in Laxgalts'ap
Visitors learning about the history and culture of the Nisga'a people at the Nisga'a Museum in Laxgalts'ap Northern BC Tourism / Christos Sagiorgis

Opened in 2011, Hli Goothl Wilp-Adokshl Nisga’a (literally the “Heart of Nisga’a House Crests,” better known as the Nisga’a Museum) is a glass-fronted, purpose-built structure designed to house the first 300 objects repatriated from Canadian museums as a result of the treaty. While this was a substantial start, says Theresa Schober, the museum’s director and curator, the institution also aimed to search internationally for other sacred possessions. “An incalculable number of cultural belongings were removed from the valley [between] the late 1800s [and] the early 1900s,” Schober explains.

Often displayed without crucial context in locations around the world, the displaced belongings represent a multilayered loss. “There’s the loss of the intergenerational ways of teaching,” Schober says. “If a Nisga’a person isn’t sharing how [these objects] relate to their lives, it’s also easy [for museum visitors] to miss all of the power they hold.”

Armed with new information about the theft of the Ni’isjoohl memorial pole, Parent thought it was time to approach NMS about repatriation. By the time the Nisga’a began their campaign in 2022, much had changed in the museum world. In 2007, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples affirmed the need for states to “enable the access and/or repatriation of ceremonial objects … through fair, transparent and effective mechanisms developed in conjunction with Indigenous peoples concerned.” In 2021, NMS reversed its long-held refusal to repatriate Indigenous belongings.

Nisga’a delegation led by Sim’oogit Ni’isjoohl (Earl Stephens) and Sigidimnak’ Nox Ts’aawit (Amy Parent) at the National Museum of Scotland
Nisga’a delegation led by Sim’oogit Ni’isjoohl (Earl Stephens) and Sigidimnak’ Nox Ts’aawit (Amy Parent) at the National Museum of Scotland Neil Hanna

In August 2022, a seven-person Nisga’a delegation, including Parent, Stephens and Schober (as a non-Nisga’a witness), journeyed to Scotland. As the individuals entered the building, singing while dressed in traditional regalia, the pole seemed to sense their presence, Parent says. “It felt like our ancestors let out a sigh of relief,” she recalls. “After ceremonies [are performed], the pole itself comes to life. It has spirit, and it’s alive. Until a totem pole falls to the ground naturally, that spirit is still present. This pole has never fallen. So we believe that the spirit of our ancestors [is] still present within it.”

Almost immediately, the Nisga’a delegation and NMS staff clashed over differences in worldview. “First it was around our ceremonies to feed the pole [because] they had a ‘no food in the museum’ rule,” says Parent. (The two groups compromised by using vacuum-packed food.) “Then they told us about their very complicated, one-year-old repatriation policy. We explained it was irrelevant to us. We were there in accordance with Nisga’a laws and protocols, which are thousands of years old.”

A major sticking point was NMS staff’s confusion over why the repatriation request came from the Nisga’a Nation rather than the national or provincial governments. “We explained the political context of the Nisga’a treaty and that we didn’t need Canada or British Columbia to be there negotiating on our behalf,” says Parent. To ensure they were taken seriously, the Nisga’a also set up a visit with Angus Robertson, Scotland’s culture minister.

Sim’oogit Ni’isjoohl (Mr Earl Stephens) and Sigidimnak’ Nox Ts’aawit (Amy Parent) of the Nisga’a Nation with the memorial pole
Sim’oogit Ni’isjoohl (Mr Earl Stephens) and Sigidimnak’ Nox Ts’aawit (Amy Parent) of the Nisga’a Nation with the memorial pole Neil Hanna

As discussions wrapped up, NMS requested three months to make a decision. Parent was impatient, but as Schober pointed out, museums seldom work quickly. The Nisga’a had already waited almost 100 years. Another month or two wouldn’t matter. Then, on December 1, the answer came back: The Ni’isjoohl memorial pole would be repatriated. When the winter weather clears, it will return to Nisga’a territory, finding a new home in the Nisga’a Museum.

“I welcome the decision taken by National Museums Scotland’s Board of Trustees to return the Ni’isjoohl memorial pole to its place of origin,” says Robertson in an NMS statement. “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.”

Parent, for her part, is thrilled. She hopes the story of the successful repatriation offers hope to other Indigenous communities. “We see this as one large step forward for our family and our nation’s repatriation journey but one small step for all the reconciliation work that’s still required of all museums with imperial and colonial legacies,” she says. “They need to continue enacting their commitments to us as Indigenous peoples. Justice for our ancestors will prevail.”

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