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Royal B.C. Museum returning totem to remote First Nation

The pole was taken from the Nuxalk homeland in South Bentinck (Talleomy) south of Bella Coola after people were forced to relocate after a smallpox epidemic around 1900.

A totem pole that was taken from a remote First Nation on the Central Coast and has been in the Royal B.C. Museum’s collection for more than a century is going home.

The Nuxalk People near Bella Coola are celebrating the repatriation of the sacred pole — and possibly other items — after museum officials this week agreed to return it to their traditional territory.

“The eyes of the people are glowing,” Hereditary Chief Snuxyaltwa, who also goes by Deric Snow, said in an interview Tuesday. “Everyone I see on the street is happy — cars are honking.”

The pole was taken from the Nuxalk homeland in South Bentinck (Talleomy) south of Bella Coola after people were forced to relocate after a smallpox epidemic around 1900.

It was carved by Louie Snuxyaltwa — Snow’s great grandfather — in the mid-1800s and was initially a longhouse entrance pole, and then a grave post.

The museum reportedly paid $45 for the pole, which was brought south around 1912 and housed in the museum’s collections.

Snow said his great grandfather’s spirit is still in the totem pole and has not been able to rest.

He said the pole must be brought back to free his spirit and for the next generations of the Nuxalk people.

Four Nuxalk hereditary chiefs were promised by then-museum CEO Jack Lohman that the artifacts would be returned after they visited the museum in October 2019 and saw the totem standing in the First Peoples Gallery.

But there were several hurdles, said Snow — another claim on the pole, complications removing it from the third floor of the museum and issues around meetings with all involved because of the pandemic.

To prove there were no other Nuxalk claims, Snuxyaltwa obtained signed letters of support from all 14 hereditary chiefs of the Nuxalk Nation and from the Nuxalk elected band council.

Snow said when he initiated a lawsuit in February 2022, talks on an agreement to return the totem “lit a fire … that’s when they thought they should give it back.”

He was notified two weeks ago that the museum would be shipping the totem to Bella Coola on Feb 13, and would be paying for the transportation.

Snow said elected band members and chiefs will be in Victoria to see the totem loaded and to celebrate.

About 100 members of the Nuxalk Nation plan to attend, he said, and an online fundraising page is raising money so several nation members can attend.

The Nuxalk People will present the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations with a gift “for looking after our totem for over 100 years.”

The pole will be taken to the school in Bella Coola, where it will be available to the First Nation to see and appreciate.

It will then be taken to the nation’s traditional village on South Bentinck (Talleomy), about 50 kilometres south of Bella Coola, and placed on its original site.

“When the pole touches the ground again, we will feel the energy,” said Snow. “My grandfather in the spirit world will rest again.”

Snow indicated other items associated with potlatch ceremonies may be returned to the nation.

He said many of the Nuxalk people sold regalia, headdresses and masks dating from 1855 to 1950 because potlatch ceremonies were outlawed under threat of jail. “They sold because the government put so much fear in them,” said Snow.

The Royal B.C. Museum did not respond to requests for an interview on Tuesday, but provided a statement to the Times Colonist.

“All repatriations are different, but most are complex,” said the statement. “We have been working closely with Chief Snow since September 2022 to create a logistical plan that ensures the safety of the pole, and the people involved at all stages.

“We have consulted with a team of engineers, conservationists and other experts both within and outside the museum, and have provided Chief Snow with bi-weekly status reports to keep him apprised of the activities involved in the process. As reported, we will be implementing this plan and completing the repatriation in mid-February.”

In an interview this month, museum CEO Alica Dubois said repatriation of artifacts is underway and a crane will be used to remove some items from the First People’s Gallery on the third floor, which has been closed for more than a year.

A totem housed in the glass gallery on the outside mezzanine of the museum is also being returned to the Nuxalk people, according to a sign on the podium where the totem once stood.

The totem was a house entrance pole acquired from the Nuxalk at South Bentinck by one of the museum’s founding curators, Charles Newcombe, in 1913.

New signage where the pole once stood states: “Item returned home. First Nations cultural objects were often taken from villages by early explorers, collectors, scientists and everyday settlers in a time of great duress. The impacts continue to cause harm today.”

It also says: “Repatriation is one important step toward reconciliation as British Columbians reflect on our shared history and responsibilities. These treasures have now journeyed home to their ancestral territories to be cared for and interpreted in context by their descendant communities.”

The Nuxalk nation has about 1,200 members and has suffered greatly over the years, said Snow. It was nearly wiped out by smallpox at the turn of the last century, and many members were sent to residential schools in Alert Bay, Port Alberni and even in the U.S., some never to return.

“This is about reconciliation,” he said.

The Nuxalk traditional territory extends from the mouth of the Bella Coola River inland along the Bella Coola Valley and nearby inlets and channels.

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