A homecoming celebration for a memorial totem pole after an absence of almost 100 years will resonate far beyond the tiny Indigenous village in northwest British Columbia where it is being returned Friday.
The House of Ni’isjoohl memorial totem, on display in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh since 1930, returns amid a reckoning for some cultural institutions about colonial legacies.
But Indigenous, political, cultural and institutional leaders say the meaning of the totem’s journey to its ancestral Nisga’a Nation village home in the remote Nass Valley transcends the return of stolen artwork — it is an act of reconciliation that can open other doors.
John Giblin, keeper of global arts, cultures and design at the National Museum of Scotland, said in an interview from Hamburg, Germany, that the Edinburgh institution is committed to “engaging with the colonial history and the colonial legacies of our collections and our practices.”
Public support in Scotland for the pole’s return to the Nass Valley was positive, said Giblin, adding the experience has developed into a fuller relationship between the Nisga’a and the museum and future collaborations are now being considered.
Hundreds of people are expected to attend the ceremony welcoming the 11-metre pole back to the Nass Valley, about 1,400 kilometres northwest of Vancouver, after a journey that included a flight aboard a Canadian Armed Forces aircraft.
The timing also carries significance. It arrives one day before Canada’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, held to honour survivors of residential schools and Indigenous children who did not come home.
“Museums need to understand this as something that is not about loss or it does not have to be about loss,” Giblin said of the pole’s return.
“If done well and if done in collaboration with communities, it can be about generating new understanding, new relationships.”
Giblin, who was in Hamburg for a meeting of the European Ethnography Museum directors’ group, said he provided members with an update about the return of the Nisga’a totem.
Giblin’s attitude contrasts with a mindset that once prevailed among some in the global museum community, that “universal museums” held artifacts in multicultural collections for the betterment of humanity as a whole.
In a 2002 document called the “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums,” some of the world’s most renowned museums and galleries said that museums “provide a valid and valuable context for objects that were long ago displaced from their original source.”
It pushed back against calls for repatriation by saying that “museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation.”
“To narrow the focus of museums whose collections are diverse and multi-faceted would therefore be a disservice to all visitors,” it said.
The declaration’s 18 signatories included the Louvre in Paris, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Prado Museum in Madrid.
But museums globally are increasingly facing pressure to return items to their rightful owners.
The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which also signed the 2002 declaration, is now among those looking to return artworks. It has placed a plaque on a display of rare West African works of art, including bronze helmets and swords, saying it was aware the objects were looted by British troops in 1897.
New York City passed a law in August 2022 requiring museums to acknowledge works of art as stolen from Jews by the Nazis.
The reputation of museums as places of safekeeping has also been eroded.
Last month, the director of the British Museum announced his resignation after investigations revealed the theft or disappearance of hundreds of items. Hartwig Fischer apologized for failing to take seriously enough a warning from an art historian that artifacts from its collection were being sold on eBay.
“Museums as an idea where they centrally locate objects from around the world for people to view and learn about is in one way a great learning project, but in another way it also represents many of the challenges we see with the experience of colonization and the negative impacts it had on peoples’ cultures,” said Prof. Geoffrey Bird, of the school of communication and culture at Victoria’s Royal Roads University.
The return of the memorial totem helps the Nisga’a re-establish their link with their past after the residential school experience where Canadian governments and the church sought to remove people’s Indigenous identity, he said.
The totem’s return provides the opportunity to take reconciliation to a higher level beyond repatriating a work of art, that could lead to improvements in education, infrastructure and technology, said Bird.
“I also think it is a gateway to opening the doors to addressing all these other needs in the community,” he said. “It’s an important step toward generating awareness. These kinds of efforts have spinoff benefits.”
The Nisga’a Nation and National Museums Scotland are calling the return of the pole a “rematriation,” reflecting the matrilineal nature of Nisga’a society.
The red cedar pole was taken without the nation’s consent in 1929 by an ethnographer researching Nisga’a village life, who then sold it to the Scottish museum.
A Nisga’a delegation travelled to Scotland to ask for its return in August 2022, and the museum’s board of trustees approved the plan. Amy Parent, a member of the nation and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous education and governance said last month that a previous request for the pole’s return two decades ago had been rebuffed on the grounds that the pole was too old to move.
Nisga’a Nation President Eva Clayton said the return of the memorial pole helps set the tone for reconciliation efforts by other Indigenous nations.
The Nisga’a have a history of leadership, being the first Indigenous nation to sign a modern-day treaty in B.C. in the late 1990s, and ongoing efforts to pursue reconciliation, she said.
“It is through the combination of traditional knowledge and western education that has led our nation yet again to the forefront,” said Clayton.
“This is where we sit as a nation, watching all other nations, whether it be European, North American debating the costs of historical wrongs.”
The return of the memorial totem could act as a catalyst that will spread worldwide as more countries, governments and institutions face requests by Indigenous people to have their artifacts returned, said Murray Rankin, B.C.’s Indigenous relations and reconciliation minister.
“What more poignant example of that than to have after almost 100 years in the Scottish museum, the national museum, such a critically important piece of Nisga’a history returned to the Nisga’a,” he said.
“To me, it’s a wonderful example of the kind of changes that are afoot, long overdue changes in the direction of reconciliation.”