Hugs, smiles and tears greet the Nuxalk totem pole as it exits the museum in Victoria, BC

A Nuxalk Nation totem pole is removed from the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, BC on Monday February 13, 2023.  The stake will be returned to Bella Coola, BC (Ben Nelms/CBC - photo credit)

A Nuxalk Nation totem pole is removed from the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, BC on Monday February 13, 2023. The stake will be returned to Bella Coola, BC (Ben Nelms/CBC – photo credit)

Members of the Nuxalk Nation gathered outside the Royal BC Museum in downtown Victoria on Monday to salute one of their totem poles, which were stolen from a central coast village more than a century ago.

Some members drummed and sang, a woman slithered through the crowd while others kept their eyes trained on the top of the building while a crane pulled the pole out through a hole specially made for its removal.

They cheered as the pole, just over five meters high and one meter wide, was lowered to the ground.

WATCH: Hereditary Chief Snuxyaltwa reflects on the meaning of his great-grandfather’s pole homecoming

It was the first step in returning the pole, which will be trucked to Bella Coola later this week.

“My heart warms,” ​​said Mara Pootlass, who has family ties to Poland. “I wanted to cry with joy because I could feel the spirit.”

After family and community members spent a moment with the pole, it was lifted by crane and placed next to the Mungo Martin longhouse next to the museum.

Ben Nelms/CBC

Ben Nelms/CBC

A group of women then brought the pole back to life by singing and touching it with a handful of small feathers.

The longhouse, called the Wawadit’ła, owned by the Kwakiutl First Nation of Fort Rupert on north Vancouver Island, is offered to any nation wishing to hold a ceremony in Victoria – with the blessing of the Songhees and Esquimalt, whose traditional territory includes Victoria .

Two days of ceremony are in progress before a convoy escorts the Pole back to Nuxalk territory.

The journey of more than 1,000 kilometers from the island to the mainland and through the interior of the country is expected to take two to three days, depending on the weather conditions.

Tap on the map below to view details of the pole’s journey home:

According to Hereditary Chief Snuxyaltwa (Deric Snow), who presides over the ceremony, the pole was carved in the 19th or early 20th century by his great-grandfather, the late Louie Snow and former holder of the Snuxyaltwa title. It was placed outside the family longhouse at Talleomy (South Bentinck), about 330 kilometers or a 1,000-kilometer drive north-west of the area.

It was lost in the early 1900s when Nuxalk members trying to escape the smallpox epidemic moved about 35 kilometers north to Bella Coola.

Ben Nelms/CBC

Ben Nelms/CBC

“That’s the hardest part,” Snow said. “You know, we just went through one [pandemic] here with COVID and I just can’t imagine how our people felt when they didn’t have a hospital, they didn’t have nurses, and they had to sit there and watch our people, thousands and thousands of our people, die.”

“Museums are like dormitories for us and we try our best to accommodate that. And I’m just glad that my grandfather came through me to make this day happen and he’s here.”

He says the Pole’s return is also an opportunity to tell stories to his people.

“My family is happy, our ancestors are happy,” he said.

The journey home takes place after a complaint and several inquiries

The return comes after a lawsuit by the Nuxalk Nation after multiple calls for the museum to return the pole, which was on display in the Totem Hall on the museum’s third floor until last year.

In 2019, the museum’s then-CEO Jack Lohman said the pole was purchased by the museum, but this claim was refuted by Clyde Tallio, a teacher of traditional Nuxalk culture, who said an item of such importance would never have been sold been. Instead, Tallio said, it was taken.

Ben Nelms/CBC

Ben Nelms/CBC

At the time, Lohman told the Nuxalk Nation that the museum would be working to return several items, including this special totem pole. When that didn’t happen, the Hereditary Chief Snuxyaltwa (Deric Snow) filed a lawsuit against the museum in January 2022.

Museum staffer Janet Hanuse says the process has been held up due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the museum’s temporary closure.

The museum will cover the cost of returning the pole, but couldn’t tell CBC exactly how much that is.

More items to return

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) states that indigenous peoples “have the right to conserve, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions”.

Mike McArthur/CBC

Mike McArthur/CBC

The museum says it has repatriation requests from 30 communities across the province, and deadlines for returning items vary.

“The impact of each repatriation is significant and can be linked to important evolving initiatives, including the revitalization of languages, laws, governance, spirituality, food sovereignty, arts, ceremonies and cultural practices,” the museum said in an email to CBC.

“Every repatriation is different and makes more sense than simply returning belongings.”


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