Haisla totem

🕔Jun 07, 2006

After 62 years, the Haisla’s G’psgolox totem pole is coming home.

“This is a special moment for our people,” said Gerald Amos, former chief councilor and Haisla elder.

It is also a special moment for Canadian aboriginal groups in their ongoing efforts to reclaim cultural heritage. The return of the mortuary totem, carved in 1872, is believed to be the first Canadian aboriginal artifact voluntarily returned by a country outside North America.

“This pole connects us to the past. It also comes from a time of our strength, when our culture was intact. Therefore it is also about hope and healing,” Amos says.

The return of the G’psgolox pole rights a wrong and solves a mystery dating from 1929. “Our people came back from a fishing trip and the G’psgolox pole was gone, severed at its base.”

For the next five decades, the nine-meter pole was a thing of legend and memory, its whereabouts unknown. “We heard our parents speak of it,” Amos remembers.

Cecil Paul Sr., a Haisla elder, found the first clue to its location in an anthropology book. Later, through careful research, it was discovered that Swedish Consul Olaf Hanson had removed the totem pole and taken it to Sweden. It was housed there in the Folkens Museum.

However, it wasn’t until 1991 that Gerald Amos and fellow Haisla elder Louisa Smith went to Stockholm to see the pole. “We were the first of our people to see it in 60 years. It was very emotional.”

That trip started another journey – the Haisla’s quest to bring the G’psgolox totem pole home. “It took a decade of talk, but we had a vision,” Amos recounts.

A part of this vision included the carving of two replica poles. One of these has been placed at the original site at Misk’usa, in the Haisla’s traditional territory, where it will eventually return to the earth.

The other was flown to Sweden to take the place of the original pole at the Folkens Museum.

“This was important to our Nuyen,” explains Amos. “This is our belief that if someone spits in your face, you don’t spit back. That is one reason that we promised to provide a replica pole. It obviously worked. We made some wonderful relationships which we would otherwise not have had.”

But the journey was not easy. Master carver Henry Robinson was commissioned to carve the replicas from two logs. This project was made more difficult because he had to work from numbers and precise diagrams rather than listen to the log’s spirit.

Eventually the replicas were completed. In 2000, the 1200 kg replacement pole was flown to Sweden and given to the museum.

And yet the original pole remained in Sweden. The G’psgolox pole had not yet come home. One obstacle which slowed the process was Sweden’s insistence that the original pole be housed in a protective facility. This caused a problem logistically, financially and culturally. However, the Haisla agreed to these terms.

“In our culture, it is important that a totem pole returns to the earth,” Amos explains. “Many Haisla are still saddened that this won’t happen to the old original G’psgolox pole.”

Although recognizing the mixed feelings within the Kitamaat Village population, Amos also sees tremendous value in having the G’psgolox pole as a teaching tool.

“I think it is important for our people to feel and touch the pole. Our culture lasted and functioned for at least 8,000 years, so we must have been doing something right. It is important for our people, our youth, to connect with this.”

And on July 1, 2006, Kitamaat Village residents, young and old, will have this opportunity. At long last the pole is coming home. It arrived at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology April 26, and will be handed over to the Haisla at an official ceremony in late June. After this, it will be trucked to Kitamaat Village.

“Our vision is that it will arrive June 30. We will have a feast July 1 and celebrate with our neighbors,” Amos says.

But the journey is still not complete and the G’psgolox totem cannot yet remain in Kitamaat Village. Instead it will be housed in Kitimat’s City Centre Mall until a permanent facility can be built. “Plans are already being made to build this facility,” Amos says.

Although the process was often difficult, Amos sees many positives in the Haisla’s long quest to retrieve the G’psgolox pole. He says that it has fostered an increased understanding of, and developed relationships with, many different people in both Canada and Sweden.

“The pole is part of an ongoing journey which connects First Nations peoples with their past while building hope and relationships for the future.”