Totem: The Return of the G’psgolox Pole

Totem: The Return of the G’psgolox Pole in its entirety is viewable on the National Film Board of Canada website. The film and the story of the pole struck me. The distance that the pole travelled, from BC to Sweden, is just extraordinary. I often forget that First Nations cultural material is not just contained in North American museums, but all over the world. I was also struck by the cooperation between the Haisla and the National Museum of Ethnography, with the construction of replicas to satisfy both parties.

As the film concludes, the pole has yet to be returned to the Haisla because the Swedish Museum requires them to build a facility to preserve it, which they can’t afford. Updated information from ecotrust.org says that the pole has finally been returned to Kitamaat, but doesn’t say whether it has been erected once more or not.

From the Musée du Quai Branly’s symposium on human remains and repatriation, here is Eva Gesang-Karlstrom’s (Director General of the National Museums for World Culture, in Götteborg, Sweden) perspective on the episode.

At least fifteen years ago the Swedish government decided that the totem pole should go back to the Haisla people in Canada. But it was a very difficult decision, both for the Haisla people and for the Museum of Ethnography because of following a requirement that the pole be stored in a way that ensures its preservation. The Haisla people had to find a house for indoor storage. And during 15 years there was different contacts between the Haisla people and the Museum of Ethnography but also between the Haisla people and the Same people in Sweden. and during those years the museum also received a gift from the Haisla, a replica of the pole, which we have raised in front of the museum. But I think it is very important the pole [… ?] in front of the museum. But I think that the answer of the government is complicated, because to build a museum is not in the Haisla people’s tradition, and they cannot afford it. But today the pole is back and it is preserved in the box that we built up, and we have also raised the replica outside the museum of ethnography.

I find it interesting that she says that the Swedish government “decided” that the totem pole should be returned, as if the Haisla had never made a request. It paints a much rosier picture of the whole encounter than the film does, unsurprisingly.

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