The nine-meter (30-foot), 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 under dubious circumstances.
The artefact will be formally returned to the Haisla First Nation tribe at the Stockholm museum on Tuesday.
“This is great, it feels so good to be able to return it. The totem pole is such a strong symbol of their identity,” museum director Anders Björklund said just days before the ceremony.
Among those due to attend are 15 members of the Haisla tribe, Swedish Culture and Education Minister Leif Pagrotsky, Canada’s ambassador to Sweden, members of Sweden’s Sami indigenous people, as well as Swedish ice hockey legend Borje Salming, who played for many years in Canada and who has Sami heritage.
The participants will together help load the totem pole onto a truck for the first stage of a long voyage to Kitamaat village, the home of the Haisla tribe, 800 kilometers north of Vancouver, where it is scheduled to arrive home in late June.
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.
The Swedish vice consul who had it chopped down 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 pole in 1994, but the process took time because the museum sought a guarantee from the Haisla tribe that it would properly preserved.
“We are happy to finally be able to return it. We think that by doing so we will receive so much more than we will lose,” the museum director said.
The Haisla indians have donated a replica carved by Harry Robertson, a master carver and ancestor of the man who made the original.
“This new one is almost better since it tells the story of a new era in our relations with the Haisla people, and not that of an exploited people. The new one tells of the return of the totem pole and links us to the Haisla people forever,” he said.
Repatriating the piece “has enabled us to strengthen our ties with the Haisla indians,” he said.
The replica will go on show at the Swedish museum once the original is dispatched, while the original will eventually go on display at a planned Haisla cultural centre in Kitamaat.
However, unlike most totem poles which stand tall outdoors for many years before rotting and returning to Mother Earth, the G’psgolox totem pole will go on display lying down for the sake of its preservation.
“They want to keep this one,” Björklund said.
There are currently about 1,500 members of the Haisla tribe, of whom 700 live in Kitamaat.
In 2004, the Swedish museum returned to Australia the remains of 15 Aboriginals taken for scientific research a century ago.