For more than 100 years, a museum in Victoria has housed the artefacts of the Naxalk people. To the great joy of the tribal people, the totem pole has now returned.
The Naxalk people of northwestern British Columbia celebrate the homecoming of their totem pole with song, dance and drumming. The artwork has been on display at the Royal PC Museum in Victoria for over 100 years. The more than 15-foot-tall totem pole has now been brought to the community of Bella Coola, where it was carved from a large log in the late 19th or early 20th century. “Our totem pole is now at home,” said Chief Derrick Snow, whose Naxalk name is Chief Snuksieltwa. “Stocks tell us who we are and where we come from.”
Several hundred people packed the gymnasium at Bella Coola’s Acwsalcta School last week for the ceremony. A museum in Victoria, the provincial capital on Vancouver Island, previously handed over the totem pole. He was taken out of the museum and loaded into a heavy truck to the sound of drums and chants. A municipality of just over 2,000 people, it is located northwest of Vancouver – about 500 kilometers as the crow flies, but about 1,000 kilometers on highways.
“Everything depicted on this totem pole has a meaning,” explains Chief Snugsieltwa. With the return of the culturally significant artifact, so are the associated stories of her people. “My family is happy, our ancestors are happy.”
Totem poles characterize the imagery of many indigenous communities along Canada’s Pacific coast. They can display colorful ravens, eagles, bears, wolves and killer whales. Native American peoples of the West—including Naxalk, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Niska, Heildchuk, and Haisla—represent family and community history. . Hence they have social and political significance.
According to Chief Snow, the totem pole was carved by his grandfather Louie Snow in the second half of the 19th century or early 20th century. He first stopped in front of the family longhouse at Daliomi, about 40 to 50 kilometers from Bella Coola. Then a smallpox epidemic killed the Naxal coastal population. The survivors fled to Bella Coola, hoping to find medical help. It was around this time that the totem pole was brought to Victoria and is on display in the museum there.
Whether it was taken or bought against the will of the people is disputed. According to Canadian broadcaster CBC, the museum announced a few years ago that the culturally significant work had been purchased. Clyde Dalio, an expert on traditional Naxal culture, but according to the CBC, questions this. Dalio declared that an object of such importance would never be sold.
After several leaders visited the museum, the museum verbally promised to return the totem pole in 2019. They filed a civil suit a year ago alleging delays in the process. The museum attributed the delays to logistical issues and restrictions imposed by the Covid measures.
Many museums in Canada display totem poles and are now specially made for them. They continue to be an aspect of cultural identity. They are located in front of residential houses, community and administrative centers. They are evidence of the resurgence of indigenous cultures and territorial sovereignty.
Many countries with indigenous peoples have strengthened the self-reliance of indigenous peoples and their culture in recent decades. Museums around the world display the art, culture and everyday objects of indigenous peoples. However, in the past, a significant portion of it was confiscated, collected, bought or stolen without the consent of the respective people. Today, many indigenous peoples demand the return of these objects, sometimes including the remains of loved ones.
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