Nisga’a Nation Chief Earl Stephens says he trembled with emotion when he first saw a memorial totem with deep ties to his family and spiritual significance to the Indigenous peoples of the Nass Valley in British Columbia, on display at the National Museum of Scotland.
He touched the red cedar post and spoke to it in the Nisga’a language as national museum officials quietly watched him, Stephens said.
The chief said he was celebrating Thursday after the museum’s board agreed to move the 11-metre commemorative totem pole, which has been on display at the Edinburgh institution since 1930, to Nisga’a territory.
“The pole is part of a living thing,” Stephens said in an interview from the Nisga’a village of Laxgalts’ap.
He carries the spirit of his great-great-grandmother, which is why bringing him back to Nisga’a lands where he comes from is so important, he said.
The museum said its board approved the First Nation’s request to move the pole to its home in northwestern British Columbia.
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A delegation of Nisga’a leaders traveled to Edinburgh last August to request that the memorial pole be returned to their territory.
Stephens said the Nisga’a believe the hand-carved pole is alive with the spirit of its ancestor and is now returning home to rest.
He said it meant a lot to have the Ni’isjoohl memorial pole return to Nisga’a lands, so that family, nation and future generations could connect with living history.
“Being able to stand there and touch it and speak in our own language was really, really emotional,” Stephens said. “They saw me and heard me and they saw how I felt.”
The memorial pole was taken without consent in 1929 by an ethnographer researching Nisga’a village life, who then sold it to the Scottish Museum where it has been on display since 1930.
A museum statement says it was carved from red cedar in 1855 in memory of Ts’aawit, a Nisga’a chief.
The pole includes a series of interlocking figures relating to the chief’s family history through his ancestors, family coat of arms and clan, the museum says. It originally stood outside the home of the chief’s relatives near the Nass River in British Columbia and is currently on display in the National Museum of Scotland’s Living Lands gallery, it says.
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The museum’s decision to bring the memorial totem back to its home adds to the ongoing story of the Nisga’a Nation’s history, said Amy Parent, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Education and Governance .
“Our hearts have been moved by the commitment to return our family’s cultural treasure, allowing us to create a new story to right a colonial wrong with the honor, dignity and solidarity of the people of Scotland who march to our sides on our decolonization journeys,” she said in a statement.
The repatriation of the Nisga’a Memorial Totem Pole is a historic moment for the Nisga’a and other Indigenous peoples, Parent said in an interview.
“We truly hope that our story will inspire our Indigenous parents around the world to know that the impossible is possible when it comes to challenging colonial structures for the repatriation of our stolen cultural treasures and that justice for ancestors will prevail” , she said.
The museum said it will begin planning to safely remove the totem from its display location and prepare it for transport to British Columbia.
“We are pleased to have reached this agreement and to be able to transfer the memorial pole to its people and to where its spiritual significance is best understood,” Chris Breward, director of National Museums Scotland, said in a statement. “We hope this is not the end of the process, but the next step in a fruitful and ongoing relationship with the Nisga’a.
The decision to transfer the memorial totem back to the Nisga’a Nation required and received the approval of the Scottish government, said Ian Russell, chairman of the board of trustees of National Museums Scotland.
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