British Columbia

Nuxalk First Nation still waiting for return of family totem pole from Royal B.C. Museum, chief says

Hereditary Chief Snuxyaltwa (Deric Snow) of Nuxalk First Nation says the Royal B.C. Museum's alleged failure to return his great-grandfather's totem pole has been hurtful to members of his community.

Museum promised to repatriate artifact in October 2019, hereditary chief claims in lawsuit

Members of the Nuxalk nation in ceremonial garb with other dignitaries present are arrayed around an intricately carved totem pole that is surrounded by native art in a museum.
Nuxalk First Nation representatives, left, made a formal request to the Royal B.C. Museum to take back the totem pole, centre, during a ceremony at the museum's Totem Hall in October 2019. The totem pole was carved by former hereditary chief Louie Snow. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

A First Nation chief says the Royal B.C. Museum's alleged failure to return his great-grandfather's totem pole has been hurtful to members of his community, more than two years after the museum had promised to let go of the artifact.

Hereditary Chief Snuxyaltwa (Deric Snow) of Nuxalk First Nation, located near Bella Coola on B.C.'s Central Coast, says he filed a lawsuit in January against the Victoria-based museum for not returning the totem pole carved by the late Louie Snow, the former owner of the Snuxyaltwa title, after the nation's leaders visited the museum in October 2019 to ask for its return.

"It's a beautiful pole," Snuxyaltwa told host Carolina de Ryk on CBC's Daybreak North. "It doesn't belong in the Royal Museum, it doesn't belong in any museum." 

The artifact was an entrance pole at the Snuxyaltwa family's longhouse in Talleomy (South Bentinck) before Nuxalk members relocated to Bella Coola to evade the smallpox epidemic in the early 1900s. The community lost the totem pole around that time.

The artifact ended up in the Royal B.C. Museum, where it was on display in the Totem Hall on the museum's third floor for years until January, when the entire floor was closed as part of the museum's effort to decolonize its exhibition.

Hereditary chief Snuxyaltwa (Deric Snow) of Nuxalk First Nation has filed a lawsuit against the Royal B.C. Museum for its alleged failure to return his family's totem pole. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

'They have to send the totem pole back'

The museum has made repatriation of totem poles a priority in recent years, in part as a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and also because of the B.C. government's commitment to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). 

But as Snuxyaltwa stated in his civil claim filed with the B.C. Supreme Court on Jan. 13, the museum's former CEO Jack Lohman agreed to return the artifact, but made no meaningful progress to achieve it, despite multiple requests.

The exterior of the Royal B.C. Museum with exterior globed lighting, a pavillioned entrance and signs advertising an IMAX experience.
Royal B.C. Museum has made repatriation of totem poles a priority in recent years. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Snuxyaltwa argues the totem pole should have been returned to Nuxalk First Nation when the museum's third floor closed.

"If they're going to start over and do something right, they should return all those different items to the people from whom they stole them from," he said.

"They have to send the totem pole back to Bella Coola no matter what kind of condition it is in."

Continued repatriation of Indigenous artifacts

The Royal B.C. Museum has declined CBC's request for response to Snuxyaltwa's comment, citing the pending lawsuit.

But new CEO Alicia Dubois, who replaced Lohman two months ago after he had stepped down last February amid allegations of racism against Indigenous staff, says she, as an Indigenous person, will continue the museum's effort to repatriate artifacts to First Nations.

Royal B.C. Museum CEO Alicia Dubois says she will continue the effort of repatriating artifacts to Indigenous communities. (Royal B.C. Museum)

"That is very important work, and it starts off with ensuring that the Indigenous team ... has the space to do that work in a very meaningful way," Dubois said Tuesday to guest host Kathryn Marlow on CBC's On The Island

"What I really hope to create is a sense of collective responsibility and collective solutions where everybody is engaged."

With files from Daybreak North, On The Island and Chantelle Bellrichard