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8227A totem pole comes home

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  • Don
    Mar 1, 2006
      A totem pole comes home
      A Swedish museum is returning the artifact to the B.C. band that carved it 134 years ago

      Jeff Lee
      Vancouver Sun

      Wednesday, March 01, 2006

      CREDIT: Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun
      Premier Gordon Campbell on Tuesday visited the 1872 Haisla totem pole that will be returned from the Etnografiska Museet in Stockholm where curator Anne Murray (centre) and museum consultant Per Kaks prepare it for its journey in the large box at left.

      STOCKHOLM -- Sometimes, when he walks by Olaf Hanssen's legacy, a totem pole from B.C., Per Kaks looks way up and is reminded of the responsibility museums around the world have to preserve cultural artifacts that would otherwise be lost to time, weather and unscrupulous collectors.

      "I have been asking myself so many times, for whom have we kept these things, for whom have we kept them alive?" the former director of the Sweden's Ethnographic Museum said Tuesday.

      In this case, the answer now seems to be for the very people who lost it nearly 80 years ago. In 1929 Hanssen, the Swedish consul living in Prince Rupert, had the pole cut down from its place at the old village of Misk'usa at the head of the Kitlope Valley and shipped to Stockholm.

      For many years it remained outside in the weather, cracking and wearing in the alternating seasons of snow and heat. Eventually, it was put into storage, where it remained for nearly 50 years.

      When the museum created a new gallery in 1980 for its vast native collections, it placed the pole in its central hall, an air-conditioned and heated facility designed to properly conserve such artifacts.

      Then the owners came calling. One day in 1991, a month after Kaks became director of the museum, several members of the Haisla First Nation showed up, insisting he give back what they believed had been stolen.

      At first, Kaks didn't know what to say. But he agreed to consider their demands.

      He remembers a tense moment when he visited Kitimat the next year, when the village roundly accused the museum of pillaging the pole, but eventually, the museum and the Haisla began negotiating from a point of what was best for the totem. The pole would go home, as long as the Haisla could properly care for it.

      But the Haisla, who have had greater social and economic problems to deal with, didn't have the money to construct the necessary controlled-environment building.

      It has taken 15 years, but now they are ready.

      When the pole leaves Stockholm on March 12, it will be replaced by a replica four Haisla carved last year in the yard outside the museum. A second replica was raised at Misk'usa in August 2002. The original will be housed at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC until July, then sent to Kitimat where it will be installed in a school. It will eventually be transferred to a new community hall.

      This artifact being repatriated is not just any totem pole. It is one with a rich and tragic history, carved as a memorial to white man's terrible infliction upon first nations when smallpox, a disease never before experienced by North American Indians, swept through tribes.

      In 1870, smallpox nearly wiped out the Kitlope people, as the Haisla were then known. As the band's oral history goes, the chief, Gupsgolox, was so distraught at losing all his children that he was struck with grief. One day in the woods he encountered a spirit called the Tsooda Spirit, who gave him a piece of crystalline rock and told him to bite it at the tree where he'd interred his dead children.

      When Gupsgolox did so, the children came out alive. In thanks, the chief commissioned a pole that contained three figures; at the bottom was a grizzly bear living under water, over which was Asoalget, a personified spirit. At the top was the Tsooda Spirit.

      The pole, carved in 1872, remained at Misk'usa, at the head of the Kitlope, until Hanssen found it. The government gave Hanssen an export permit, but there was never any title document issued.

      The Haisla eventually traced the pole to Stockholm. When Louisa Smith, a descendent of Gupsgolox, found it standing in the museum's hall, she wept as she stepped over a short barrier and hugged it.

      The repatriation project has been funded by the museum, Swedish federal government, private fundraising and the Canadian government. The Canadian embassy in Stockholm contributed $12,000 and the Department of Canadian Heritage $27,000. T-shirts sold through the museum and the band raised another $5,700.


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