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Rematriation not Repatriation: The Return of a Nisga'a Totem Pole from the National Museum of Scotland

By: Alison May-Kosiewski


Rematriation: a term used instead of repatriation when objects are returned to a matrilineal community (a community through which kinship is through the mother’s line.)

Almost one hundred years after the House of Ni’isjoohl Memorial Totem – an 11-meter red cedar house pole that was carved in the 1860s to tell the story of Ts’wawit, a warrior next in line to be chief before being killed in a conflict – was returned to the Nisga’a nation from the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. The Memorial Pole is the second to have ever been returned to First Nations leaders from a European institution (Angeleti, 2022).

The Nisga'a delegation at the National Museum of Scotland beside the 11-metre memorial pole. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA. Source.

The pole was stolen by Canadian anthropologist Marius Barbeau in 1929 and sold to the National Museum of Scotland in 1930. It is alleged that Barbeau took it without the consent of the House of Ni’isjoohl when the peoples were away from their village during a time of annual hunting, fishing, and harvesting (O’Donoghue, 2023). The totem poles of the Pacific Northwest, along with the thousands of objects were taken and distributed to private collectors and museums in North America and Europe.

The House of Ni’isjoohl Memorial Totem. Photo: Simon Fraser University. Source.

Of all the material culture created by the costal First Nations, totem poles are the most recognized across the globe (Kramer, 2012). A quick Google search on the importance of totem poles will turn up articles such as “13 totally terrific totem pole facts” or the Canadian government’s short video “Totems: The stories they tell.”

There are in fact many different types of totem poles specific to each coastal Indigenous community (King, 2017). To read more about them visit the University of British Columbia’s Indigenous Arts Foundation page.

Common misconceptions around the meaning and purpose of totem poles are the result of misunderstanding among missionaries (Huang 2009, Mawani 2004). Totem poles are not worshiped as idols, nor are they talismans that are placed to ward off evil. Instead, a totem pole is erected to commemorate a life, important milestone, or event (Huang, 2009).

Hereditary Chief Bruce Haldane addresses a crowd during the House of Ni'isjoohl Memorial Pole homecoming ceremony. (Quinn Bender/Reuters). Source.

There are increasing calls by First Nations for museums and other institutions to

return stolen totem poles to their communities. Earlier this year a Nuxalk Nation pole that was stolen and then sold to the Royal BC Museum for $45 was finally returned after 110 years (Marlow and Dickson, 2023). You can take a look through the museum’s online collection and take a 360° tour of Thunderbird Park where the totem pole previously stood here. Closer to home the Royal Ontario Museum has faced a number of calls to return a range of items in the past few years. The Nisga’a nation asked the ROM to return the three Nisga’a totem poles and one Haida totem pole, but ultimately decided against it upon hearing that it may have to be cut into pieces for removal from the building (Kelly, 2021).

A totem pole belonging to the Nuxalk Nation is removed from the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. The pole will be repatriated to Bella Coola, B.C. (Ben Nelms/CBC). Source.

The National Museum of Scotland worked in partnership with the Nisga’a to return the pole to the Nass Valley. The rematriation is beyond the return of a stolen piece of artwork for both sides – it was an act of reconciliation that has now opened doors to future collaborations through strengthened relationship (Brown, 2023). In engaging with the colonial history and legacy of the collection, the National Museum of Scotland hopes to set a precedent for other institutions to follow.

If you're looking for an in-depth explanation of totem poles, their significance to Northwest Coast First Nations, and how they came to their place in current cultural knowledge, check out The Totem Pole: An Intercultural History by Aldona Jonaitis and Aaron Glass.

If you are interested in learning more about totem poles:

Mawani, Renisa. "From colonialism to multiculturalism? Totem poles, tourism and national identity in Vancouver’s Stanley Park." ARIEL: A review of international English Literature 35, no. 1-2 (2004).

King, Victor T. "Identity, material culture and tourism: Of ritual cloths and totem poles." South East Asia Research 25, no. 2 (2017): 192-207.

Kramer, Pat. Alaska's totem poles. Graphic Arts Books, 2012.


Angeleti, Gabriella. 2022. “National Museum of Scotland to repatriate looted totem pole” The

Brown, Mark. 2023. “Totem pole begins ‘rematriation’ from Edinburgh to Nisga’a nation in Canada.” The Guardian.

CBC News. 2023. “Stolen totem pole formally welcomed home to Nisga’a territory after nearly a century in Scottish museum.” CBC.

Huang, Alice. 2009. “Totem Poles.” First Nations & Indigenous Studies.

Kelley, Deirdre. October 2, 2021. “Want Some Real Truth and Reconciliation? Give Canada’s First People’s Back Their Stuff.” Blog Post.  Accessed January 25, 2024.

King, Victor T. 2017. "Identity, material culture and tourism: Of ritual cloths and totem poles." South East Asia Research 25, no. 2: 192-207.

Kramer, Pat. 2012. Alaska's totem poles. Graphic Arts Books.

Marlow, Kathryn, and Courtney Dickson. 2023. “Hugs, Smiles and Tears Greet Nuxalk Totem Pole as It Leaves Victoria Museum | CBC News.” CBC. February 13, 2023.

Mawani, Renisa. 2004. "From colonialism to multiculturalism? Totem poles, tourism and national identity in Vancouver’s Stanley Park." ARIEL: A review of international English Literature 35, no. 1-2 .

Meissner, Dirk. 2023. “Reconciliation and reckoning as Nisga'a totem pole returns to B.C. from Scotland museum.” CTV.

O’Donoghue, Saskia. 2023. “Artefacts row: 'Stolen' totem pole set to return from Scotland to Canada.” euronews.culture.

Shaw, Melissa. 2022. “Indigenous leaders welcome historic repatriation of stolen Nisga’a memorial totem pole” Office for Aboriginal Peoples at Simon Fraser University.



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