Linda Lafleur, Prince Rupert Daily News, August 6, 2004
“People of the Rock”, is the English translation of the Tsimshian word Kitlope. These people have worked for many years to bring a mortuary pole back home. Taken to a museum in Stockholm, Sweden in 1929, the Haisla people want it back.
“We have a solemn, sacred duty to keep faith with those who came before us, who guarded and protected this land for us: we must do no less for ourselves and for those who come after,” reads the Haisla declaration, Kitlope Declaration 1991.
The Haisla Nation has already realized one victory, when in 1994, their efforts saved and created the million-acre Greater Kitlope Ecosystem. This is the world’s largest known intact coastal temperate rainforest watershed. In 1994 West Fraser relinquished the company’s rights to this area, without financial compensation.
A contingent of carvers and repatriation committee members presented a video of their repatriation attempts to members of the Tsimshian Tribal Council (TTC) Thursday. TTC President Bob Hill welcomed the delegates and expressed interest and appreciation for the group’s efforts over the years.
The history of the pole goes back to 1872 when it was carved and raised at the village site of Misk’usa, located on the Kitlope River. Smallpox and other diseases hit the village in the 1870s and this was followed by an avalanche which wiped out the remaining village. These events forced residents to move to Kemano. The Kitlope people got together with their northern neighbours the Xanaksiyala and settled in the Kitimaat area.
The pole’s significance is due to a story passed down through the generations. After smallpox had killed most of his family, Chief G’psgoalux went into a period of mourning. He met a mythical figure in the forest who directed him to the family’s grave site where he would see his family sit up again. The chief understood the significance of the sight, and immediately commissioned the carving of the mortuary pole by calling in carvers of Raven Clan — Humdzeed (Johnny Paul) and Wakas (Solomon Robertson).
Starting in the1920s, totem poles in the Northwest were taken from their sites and relocated to museums and private collections throughout the world. The Kitlope’s G’psgoalux pole was purchased and taken to Sweden. It has been there since 1929.
The Haisla’s first trip to Sweden was made in 1991, when they let the Swedish government know they wanted their pole back. They had former Premier Mike Harcourt’s support by way of a letter to the Swedish government.
In 1994, the Swedish government agreed to the return of the pole to the Kitimaat Village Council. But there were strings attached.
The Haisla have to construct exact an replica of the pole to replace the original, and had to guarantee a building to house and protect the original totem pole, before the Swedes would relinquish the pole. One replica now stands at the original village site of Misk’usa after being carved by descendants of the original carvers and raised in 2000. The second replica was shipped to the Swedish museum.
Louisa Smith is an active member of the repatriation committee. She is actively involved with Ecotrust Canada. She also co-ordinates the activities between the Swedish National Museum of EthnographySummit office in Vancouver but still dedicated to this project), Louise Barbetti, and Derek Wilson.
Derek Wilson worked on the replica pole and is known as “Xanaksiyala Carver”. He presented this story to the Tsimshian Tribal Council this week, and spends much of his time with fellow committee members raising awareness and funds for the completion of this project.
Their ultimate goal is the return of their G’psgoalux pole. “The new cultural building will cost $350,000,” said Wilson. He also said there is no government funding to help get the centre built. “We are raising the money any way we can,” said Wilson.
“It is not just about the pole,” said Wilson. He said the repatriation is also about the ancestral skeletol remains, the masks, rattles and button blankets.
Dan Paul now owns the hereditary title of G’psgoalux. He said it was a tough decision to allow the pole to be preserved. This goes against the cultural practice of allowing a pole to return to the earth. He also stated “the importance of getting the pole home to let our ancestors rest peacefully”.