The Nisga’a people of the Nass Valley in British Columbia are seeking the return of a memorial pole that was taken in 1929 by ethnographer Marius Barbeau, who later sold it to the National Museum of Scotland. This was the period (1885-1951) during which the potlatch and other cultural expression by Indigenous people were forbidden under the Indian Act by Europeans who thought these objects were pagan. The subject memorial pole was taken from the House of Ni’isjoohl at the village of Laxgalts’ap, when members were away for the annual food harvesting season.

In August, 2022, a Nisga’a delegation met with officials from the National Museum of Scotland where the Nisga’a memorial pole currently resides. The Nisga’a totem pole, known as the Ni’isjoohl memorial pole, was carved in the 1860’s. The pole depicts the story of Ts’wawit, a warrior who was next in line to be chief before he was killed in a conflict.

Photo of Memorial Pole at the National Museum of Scotland

The Nisga’a delegation, who traveled to Scotland to engage in discussions of repatriation of the pole consisted of Chief Earl Stephens (Sim’oogit Ni’isjoohl), Dr. Amy Parent (Noxs Ts’aawit), a tribe member and Chair of Indigenous Studies at Simon Fraser University, and Shawna McKay. According to the Nisga’a delegation, the pole is subject to Article 12 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which the United Kingdom is a signatory. The 2007 UN Declaration says that “states shall seek to enable the access and/or repatriation of ceremonial objects and human remains in their possession through fair, transparent and effective mechanisms developed in conjunction with Indigenous Peoples concerned.”

If the Nisga’a Nation is successful in repatriating the pole, they plan to erect the pole inside the Nisga’a Museum, which is home to more than 300 other cultural relics that were returned from the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Royal BC Museum. Repatriation of the Ni’isjoohn memorial pole would be the second ever pole to be returned back to Canada from a European museum. The first pole returned to Canada from Europe was in 2006 from Sweden, after nearly 80 years since its removal from Kitimat. An exchange was agreed upon, where a replica of the totem, created by a descendant of the man who carved the original, was made and mounted outside the entrance to the museum in Stockholm Sweden.

The pole taken from the House of Ni’isjoohl, is one of 50 houses within the Nisga’a Nation. The Nisga’a Nation of approximately 8,000 people consists of four villages along the Nass River. The Nass River is located off Portland Inlet in remote Northern BC, accessible by road or small water craft.

Chart showing the location of the Nass River

Gitlaxt’aamiks, the capital of the Niga’a Nation, is the site of Northwest Coast totem poles. The village of Gitwinksihlkw, located along the north bank of the Nass River, was for generations only accessible by a suspension footbridge; today, a vehicle bridge provides access. Hot springs near the village offer two large cedar tubs surrounded by forest. The village of Gingolx is known for its seafood, especially crab and halibut. The village of Laxgalts’ap has traditional smokehouses and drying racks, and is home to the Nisga’a Museum housing exceptional carved masks, bentwood boxes, headdresses, and regalia from previous generations.

Photo of Nisga'a Masks and Capes

Photos: Nisga’a Nation