Nuxalk delegation travels to Royal B.C. Museum to talk about bringing history home

A delegation of Nuxalk hereditary chiefs and community members traveled from B.C.'s Central Coast to the Royal B.C. Museum Friday to view belongings taken from their territory — and start a conversation about bringing them home. 

Pole carved by his great-grandfather belongs in their territory, says Nuxalk hereditary chief

Nuxalk representatives from the Bella Coola area of B.C.'s Central Coast make a formal request to regain a historic house entrance pole, right, during a ceremony at the Royal B.C. Museum's Totem Hall in Victoria on Friday. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

A delegation of Nuxalk hereditary chiefs and community members traveled to the Royal B.C. Museum Friday to view belongings taken from their territory and start a conversation about bringing them home. 

In particular, they want to bring home a house entrance pole on display in an area of the museum called Totem Hall. For some, it was their first time seeing the pole carved by the late Snuxyaltwa (Louis Snow).

Today, that name is held by his great-grandson, who said he didn't know the pole was at the museum or that it even existed until recent years. Now, he and the community are starting talks to repatriate the pole and other belongings to their territory on B.C.'s Central Coast. 

Standing in front of the pole, Snuxyaltwa invited Jack Lohman, the museum's chief executive officer, to stand beside him as he read a formal letter outlining the nation's request. 

"We were told to come here and our great-grandfather here wants to be addressed," he said. "We have to take him back home to our homelands." 

The ceremony took place surrounded by professionally lit ceremonial masks and towering poles from First Nations throughout B.C. 

Hereditary Chief Snuxyaltwa said bringing back the pole carved by his great-grandfather is important for spiritual reasons. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Lohman told the gathering he is committed to working with the community to send home other belongings, including masks. 

"I recognize as the leader of this museum that this pole needs to return back to its territory — that these treasures need to return back to their territory."

Lohman also acknowledged the history around the house entrance pole that ​​storyteller Clyde Tallio shared with the group, including what it represents for the nation and the context in which it was taken away.

He explained that at the time the pole was purchased, they were struggling to survive in the aftermath of a smallpox epidemic that decimated their villages. 

That included Talleomy, a village from which survivors were removed in the early 1900s, and the pole's original location.

"Things like this wouldn't be sold, that's not our tradition," said Tallio, adding that the pole was taken when the community was at its lowest point.

The museum has made repatriation 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. 

The Nuxalk Nation is hoping to repatriate many of its poles and ceremonial belongings held in museum collections, including poles taken from the former Talleomy village site seen here. (Royal BC Museum and Archives)

"Repatriation is important — it's important as you've heard so eloquently to your communities, to the territories, to return back to history — to revitalize communities. It's also there to address the legacy of colonialism. It's there to address the legacy of unresolved grief that we've heard in the stories of smalllpox," said Lohman. 

As a sign of good faith in their conversation about repatriation, Lohman handed over a package of photographs from Nuxalk territory that were in the museum's possession. 

'A good day in Nuxalk history'

Among those who traveled to Victoria for the meeting was Jerilynn Webster who described it as "a good day in Nuxalk history."

Webster said as survivors of genocide it was particularly significant to see her chiefs and relatives standing together in that space, showing that they are still here. 

"We're not just survivors, but we're still surviving so when we can build ourselves up with our regalia, with our crests, with our family and know exactly where we come from and know exactly where these treasures came from — and how we survived… It's a powerful, powerful thing," she said. 

Lou-ann Neel is a repatriation specialist with the Royal B.C. Museum. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Lou-ann Neel, the museum's repatriation specialist, said the museum will now formally responding to the request and see if they have other objects from the community. They will also need to create an appropriate timeline, and find funding — all in partnership with the Nuxalk. 

She expects the nation may also need to do some preparation on its end depending on how they envision the pole coming back to the community.

Hereditary Chief Snuxyaltwa said the nation plans to hold a potlatch as part of that homecoming. 

with files from Mike McArthur