Back in pole position
Sacred totem pole is returned home to the Haisla people following an emotional 80-year hiatus
Gerald Amos had expected to cry Wednesday. After all, it was to be an emotional day -- the day the G'psgolox totem pole, stolen from the Haisla people of Kitimat nearly 80 years ago and shipped to Sweden, finally returned home to B.C.
What he wasn't prepared for, however, was how soon and how frequent the tears would flow.
"I woke up this morning thinking of my grandmother, who is now gone, and my father and my mother," Amos said, his words choked in the emotion of the thought though it was now almost 4 p.m.
Placing a hand on his shoulder, Haisla elder Louisa Smith gently acknowledged Amos's feelings.
"I always said that [the totem pole] has an invisible umbilical cord attached to my ancestors," Smith said. "Through the old pole we've connected to our past, to our families who have long gone before us."
It's been a long, long journey for Smith, Amos and many others who helped bring the old pole home Wednesday.
The story begins in 1872, when G'psgolox, chief of the Kitlope people, as the Haisla were then known, commissioned the pole to be carved as a memorial to the devastation of smallpox, a disease brought to North America by Europeans that all but wiped out the chief's village of Misk'usa.
For almost 50 years, the totem pole stood in the village at the head of the Kitlope Valley, until it was discovered by a man named Olaf Hanssen, a Swedish consul living in Prince Rupert.
In 1929, Hanssen had it cut down and, under dubious circumstances, shipped to Stockholm. (The government gave Hanssen an export permit, but there was never any title document issued.)
Smith, an ancestor of G'psgolox, said her people never forgot about the pole. Her grandmother, she said, pleaded with her family to "always keep our eyes open and our ears sharp" for its whereabouts.
In the early 1980s, the band learned their pole was on display in Sweden's Museum of Ethnography, and, in 1991, they went to claim it. Amos and Smith were among the group that made that first trip to Sweden.
"We had on these same blankets," Amos said, referring to the traditional red and black blankets in which they were cloaked Wednesday in celebration of the pole's return.
Smith recalled the moment she and other members of the group first met with Per Kaks, the former director of the museum. It proved a fateful encounter.
"Per asked us, 'How do we know you are who you say you are?' We were wearing our blankets . . . and automatically we got up and we turned around [and displayed the emblems of their tribes]. We said, 'This is who we are,'" she said.
"From the moment we met Per Kaks, I knew this day would come," Amos said.
Following a year of negotiations, and a visit by Kaks to Kitimat, it was agreed to pole would go home, provided the Haisla could properly care for it.
Fifteen years, and almost $50,000 in fundraising in preparation for its arrival, later, the repatriation project was complete. On March 23, the pole began its journey from Stockholm, travelling by road to the Swedish port of Gothenburg, where it was transported to the cargo vessel Maersk Wind for its four-week, 14,650-kilometre sea journey, via the Panama Canal to the port of Tacoma, Washington.
On Wednesday, the 1,500-kg pole arrived by truck at the University of B.C.'s Museum of Anthropology, where it was welcomed with traditional song and drums by dozens of Haisla band members, young and old.
"The old pole," said Smith, "shows how we have evolved over the years, that we are becoming strong once again.
"The intent of it is for our children, to get back to our values and to re-awaken the spiritual component that we all have."
The pole will remain at UBC until June 19, when it will make its final trip home to Kitimat. It is expected to arrive July 1.
For the young band members who attended Wednesday's repatriation ceremony, and later got their first glimpse at the pole as the lid was pried off the shipping container, it was a memorable experience.
"I'm just happy to be here and see it for the first time," said Barb Green, 18, who travelled to Vancouver Wednesday along with her parents and 14-year-old brother Raymond to witness the pole's arrival.
"I always asked questions about this totem pole," she said. "I asked, 'What is the story?' and they [the elders] would tell me. I wanted to know who were all the carvers and how was I related?"
Anders Bjorklund, current director of the Ethnography Museum, was also in attendance Wednesday at the repatriation ceremony at UBC. He said public interest in the Haisla, and first nations more generally, has been raised in Sweden due to the repatriation project.
Today, he said, more people than ever are interested in learning about the significance of the pole, a replica, carved by Haisla artists, of which is now displayed Stockholm.
"This has really started things," Bjorklund said. "Now when you go to the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm, you can see people gather around the new totem pole. So I think this process has produced very good things."
© The Vancouver Sun 2006
return to reunion home page