Swedish museum returns totem pole to Canadian tribe

A Swedish museum is to return a totem pole taken in the 1920s to a Canadian native indian tribe, officials said on Friday.

The nine-metre, red cedar wood pole was donated to the Museum of Ethnography in 1929 by Sweden’s then vice consul to British Columbia, Olof Hansson, who had it chopped down and shipped to Sweden.

It will leave Sweden by ship in March bound for Kitamaat village, the home of the Haisla Nation tribe, 800km north of Vancouver, arriving in mid-June, museum director Anders Björklund told AFP.

“I am delighted about returning the totem pole. It means so much to the Haisla indians and (it) has led to new relations with them,” he said.

A totem pole is a pillar carved and painted with a series of symbols representing family lineage and often mythical or historical incidents.

The pole in question was commissioned in 1872 by G’psgolox, chief of the Haisla Nation’s Eagle clan, and erected in Kitamaat. It depicts a period when the indians around Lake Kitlope suffered a smallpox epidemic and many of them died.

The totem pole was a sign of thanks to the good spirit Tsoda for sparing G’psgolox’s clan.

Hansson claimed at the time that he had bought it from the Haisla indians.

“But there are no receipts or documents to prove that,” Björklund said.

Relatives of the pole’s original owners discovered that the state-run museum had the totem pole in 1991 and sent a replica in the hopes of getting the original back.

The Swedish government decided to repatriate the artefact in 1994, but the process took time because the museum sought a guarantee from the Haisla tribe that it would be properly preserved.

“The fact that it ended up in a museum is what saved it” from rotting in the outdoors, Björklund explained. “So they have decided to put it on display at a new cultural centre in their village,” he said.

There are currently about 1,500 members of the Haisla tribe, of whom 700 live in Kitamaat.

The replica will go on show at the Swedish museum once the original is dispatched.

Last year, the same museum returned to Australia the remains of 15 Aboriginals taken for scientific research a century ago.