Return of a native

Rick Boychuk

After igloos and tepees, totem poles are among the most widely recognised native icons in the world. Given their popularity, you would think they were standard features of every native village across Canada. In fact, totem poles were carved only in a string of villages along the Pacific coast.

Last week, a pole carved in 1872 arrived in Vancouver by sea from Stockholm. Its journey was a cause for celebration by the Haisla people, a small aboriginal nation of several thousand inhabitants based in and around the community of Kitimat Village in British Columbia.

The massive red-cedar pole, which weighs 1,500kg and was packed for the voyage in a 10-metre-long wooden box, was removed from a Haisla village by collectors in 1927.

Haisla elder Gerald Amos discovered it in 1991 on display at the Museum of Ethnography in Sweden, held in place by what he described as a steel yoke around its neck. Since then, he and his colleagues have been working to have it returned to their care.

The canny Swedes were agreeable - but insisted on conditions. They asked that Haisla artists carve a replica pole for them and that the original pole be erected in a climate-controlled building to guarantee its preservation. That replica pole is now on display at the museum in Stockholm. It tells quite a story.

The original pole was carved for Haisla chief G'psgolox to memorialise an encounter he had with a mythical being named Tsooda. Legend has it that the chief was deep in the woods, mourning the death of all his people, when he encountered Tsooda, who gave him a rock and told him to bite into it. He did, and the dead returned alive from the forest. An image of Tsooda stands at the top of the pole and the bottom features a grizzly bear that Haisla myth says lived underwater.

Totem poles are artistic statements about group membership and identity. They were erected to face the sea in front of houses, at gravesites and at the entrances to communities. They were removed by ethnographic collectors in the early 1900s from villages that had been ravaged by disease and confrontations with European immigrants.

Today, the Haisla and neighbouring First Nations are struggling to rebuild the economies and cultures of their communities. The project to return the pole from Stockholm has tremendous symbolic importance for them.

'This repatriation process reminds all that, as a nation, we are present and active participants in our societies today,' Haisla leaders said.

The pole will be displayed at the World Urban Forum in Vancouver in June. The Haisla hope to use the occasion to raise funds for a new building; a fitting place to house the venerable old pole.