VANCOUVER, B.C. – A world-renowned totem pole, regarded by native people whose ancestors carved it more than a century ago as an “umbilical cord” to their history, has been returned to British Columbia after 77 years in a Swedish museum.
The 30-foot-tall G’psgolox pole, named after the chief who had it commissioned, is made of red cedar and features a mythical human figure and two grizzly bears.
It was unveiled to the Haisla First Nation on Wednesday evening at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology, where it will be temporarily housed.
Haisla member Louisa Smith, from the village of Kitamaat on British Columbia’s north coast, said her great-great-grandfather commissioned two people to carve the pole in 1872.
In 1929, the Swedish consul arranged for the totem pole to be transported to his country by boat as a gift to the Swedes.
The first totem pole in Scandinavia was placed outside a Stockholm museum for several months before the weather took its toll and it ended up in storage for 40 years.
In 1980, the pole was taken to the new, climate-controlled buildings of the Museum of Ethnography, where residents and visitors gained an appreciation for native art.
Meanwhile, Smith said her family continued wondering what had happened to the pole that had such a profound connection to them.
“It actually started with my brother Cecil Paul, who kept hearing our grandmother’s voice to keep your ears open for the whereabouts of the old pole,” she said.
Paul sought the help of a museum in Kitamaat. It would be a decade before the pole’s whereabouts were discovered in an anthropology book.
“From the information that we have, the Swedish museum wanted to have a totem pole because that was the rave at that time,” Smith said. “People from Europe wanted these totem poles in their possession.”
In 1991, she went to Stockholm to see the pole she had imagined for so long.
“When I first saw the pole, it literally took my breath away,” Smith said.
“Touching the old pole, you’re touching your ancestors. It’s an invisible umbilical cord that’s connected to our ancestors. It’s as if the pole was waiting a long, long time for someone to bring it home.”
Negotiations to bring the totem pole back home went on for years, with Smith making four more trips to Sweden to continue discussing who actually owned the pole.
Finally, in 1994, the Swedish government decided the pole would be returned as a gift to the people of Kitamaat, although the museum wanted to give it back on the condition that it be housed in a museumlike setting.
“We continued to negotiate and let the museum know that when we give a gift, there is no attachment,” Smith said.
Eventually, the director of the museum joined the Haisla First Nation’s efforts to bring home a part of their culture.
“We’re bringing it back to where it originally grew, and the breath of our ancestors will be home,” Smith said.
“For our families, it’s a reconnection to our ancestors, and for the future it’s for our children and our hopes that our culture will be rejuvenated, revived.”
Andres Bjoklund, director of the Swedish Museum of Ethnography, said he’s happy the repatriation process has come to an end.
“I think the common feeling among Swedes is that it was the right thing to do,” he said before attending the totem pole’s unveiling in Vancouver.
“It’s their culture, it’s their heritage, and they have provided us with a fantastic solution, making us a new one that’s as authentic,” Bjoklund said.
The replica red cedar totem pole, carved six years ago, stands outside the museum and is a special gift to the people of Stockholm, he said.
“It’s as authentic as the old one but it carries another story. It carries a story about the old history but also about a new history and the future of the relations with the museum and different native people.
“I cannot, myself, understand the full meaning of a totem pole as the Haisla, but I think that people have the right to their culture and heritage.”
Gerald Amos, spokesman of the Haisla totem pole committee, said the pole’s official ceremonial handover will occur June 19 at the opening of the Urban World Forum in Vancouver.
It will then go to Kitamaat at the end of June before a massive celebration by the Haisla First Nation on July 1.
Members of the Haisla Nation celebrate after a crated totem pole was moved into The Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday.