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Nisga’a Nation celebrates return of memorial pole stolen almost a century ago

The 11-metre, red-cedar pole was taken in 1929 by an ethnographer researching life in the Nisga’a Village and sold a year later to the museum in Scotland.

pole
Amy Parent, front, whose Nisga'a name is Sigidimnak' Noxs Ts'aawit, pauses in front of the House of Ni'isjoohl memorial pole during a homecoming celebration for it at the Nisga'a Nation in Laxgalts'ap, B.C., Friday, Sept. 29, 2023. The totem, on display in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh since 1930, was returned to the Nass Valley, which is about 1,400 kilometres northwest of Vancouver, after a journey that included a flight aboard a Canadian Armed Forces aircraft. Photo by DARRYL DYCK /THE CANADIAN PRESS

LAXGALTS’AP, B.C. — The Nisga’a Nation has finally brought its family history home, almost 100 years after a memorial pole was stolen and sold to Scotland’s National Museum.

The totem was carved to honour one of Amy Parent’s relatives more than 160 years ago. The Simon Fraser University anthropologist was the driving force behind its return to their homeland.

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“Welcome home, dear ancestor,” Parent, also known as Noxs Ts’aawit, said during a ceremony Friday in the remote community in British Columbia’s Nass Valley. “My heart is so happy to be here with you today.”

The 11-metre, red-cedar pole was taken in 1929 by an ethnographer researching life in the Nisga’a Village and sold a year later to the museum in Scotland.

Parent said they asked for the pole two decades ago, but the museum said then that it was in rough shape and couldn’t be moved. But they persisted, and last year, the museum agreed to allow them to bring their history home, she said.

“We wanted our children to experience family history and wake up every day knowing who they are.”

totem
Amy Parent, right, is shown with the Ni’isjoohl memorial pole alongside Nisga’a Chief Earl Stephens during a visit to the National Museum of Scotland in this handout image provided by National Museums Scotland. Parent says the pole is set to begin its month-long journey home to the Nisga’a Nation in northwestern British Columbia. Photo by National Museums Scotland handout-Neil Hanna /THE CANADIAN PRESS

The totem belongs to the House of Ni’isjoohl from the Ganada, or frog clan. The clan’s matriarch Joanna Moody commissioned a master carver in 1860 to honour her family member Ts’awit, a warrior who died protecting his family.

John Devine, a representative of the Scottish government in Canada, told the crowd the totem’s return could lead to more honest relationships between First Nations and other countries that have Indigenous artifacts.

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“For Scotland, this was not just about the process of returning a memorial pole, it was a decision to right a historical wrong.”

But for Eva Clayton, the Nisga’a Nation’s president, the return signifies both truth and reconciliation.

“Because when we think about truth and reconciliation tomorrow, we relate it to the artifacts that were taken without our consent, it brings a lot of emotions,” Clayton said of Saturday’s celebration of Truth and Reconciliation Day in Canada.

The day is in recognition of the survivors of the harsh cruelties of Canada’s residential schools and to remember that many children didn’t come home.

The pole remained in a crate in a Nisga’a hall, while children laid cedar boughs at its feet. The totem will be erected later in the week for display.

About 400 people attended the ceremony, where nation members sang and danced.

Many Nisga’a wore their bright red and black regalia, while others wore wolf pelts or dressed as bears to represent their house names.

Premier David Eby thanked the Nisga’a people for showing leadership and the way forward for other First Nations.

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“It’s an inspirational day for all of us,” he said. “It’s a true sign of reconciliation in action.

The “rematriation” of the pole came after a year of discussions between the nation and the museum. A delegation of family members and others with the Nisga’a government travelled to Edinburgh in August to oversee its return, which included a spiritual ceremony to prepare the pole for its long journey home.

Clayton said before the ceremony that she expects there will be more celebrations marking the return of other Nisga’a treasures.

“This is precedent-setting, and we have a number of our citizens who have various pieces of artifacts in museums across Canada, if not the world,” she said.

She said the return is an example to other Indigenous nations, other countries and governments to see what their work with the National Museum of Scotland has accomplished.

“In bringing to light what can occur when people are treated with true dignity, respect and are honoured for their knowledge, this is reconciliation,” said Clayton.

Related Stories

  1. Amy Parent, right, is shown with the Ni'isjoohl memorial pole alongside Nisga'a Chief Earl Stephens during a visit to the National Museum of Scotland in this handout image provided by National Museums Scotland. Parent says the pole is set to begin its month-long journey home to the Nisga'a Nation in northwestern British Columbia.

    Reconciliation and reckoning as Nisga’a memorial pole returns from Scotland museum

  2. A handout picture released by National Museums of Scotland shows delegates Pamela Brown and Chief Ni'isjoohl from the Nisga'a Nation with the Ni'isjoohl Memorial Pole in Edinburgh on August 28, 2023.

    Ceremony marks start of journey home for stolen Nisga'a memorial pole

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