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The Joel House Column in Nijs has been on display at the National Museum of Scotland since 1930. Standing 11 meters high, it was sculpted in the mid-19th century in memory of Ts’aawit, chief of what is now Nisga, British Columbia. Oyea Tait is an artist who transforms a single red cedar tree into a series of interconnected natural forms. His assistant was named Gowanes. In 1929, Marius Barbeau, an ethnographer and curator at the National Museum of Canada, “purchased” the pole from someone who had no right to sell it: it was thus stolen.
But now, the pillar — a work of immense spiritual significance to the people it belonged to — is returning to Nass Valley, in a ceremony held at the museum last Monday, with curators of the Nisga Nation and Representatives gathered together. The process of organizing its return took just one year and was led by Sigidimnak’ Nox Ts’aawit (Dr. Amy Parente), the Canadian Research Chair in Aboriginal Education and Governance at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
“It was very emotional,” she said of the ceremony. “As long as we are close to the pole, we can feel this energy. We know that our hearts will soon be at peace.”
These are challenging times to be a museum director, especially one that houses ancient or ‘ethnographic’ objects. British Museum director Dr Hartwig Fisher resigned last week after thousands of items from the museum’s collection were stolen, missing or damaged. According to reports, some artifacts were never even registered as part of the collection, so may never be traced.
It calls into question, to say the least, the British Museum’s long-held view that it is a reliable custodian of objects looted from other cultures: the great bronzes from Benin, the marble sculptures that once adorned the Parthenon , Rosetta Stone. The Nijs Joel Column House is the first time a British state agency has returned an item of this type to its original owner – if such an item can be said to have been owned – but the return process has begun in pieces. In November 2022, the Horniman Museum and Gardens in south London will transfer ownership of its collection of Benin bronzes to Nigeria. Manchester Museum began returning ancestral remains in 2003 and in November 2019 returned 43 sacred ceremonial objects to Aboriginal people across Australia.
The list abounds: restitution is not compensation for colonial plunder, but it is a start.
How do we perceive the objects we see in museums? I’ve stood in museums around the world trying to figure out how to make sense of an object whose power I could never really comprehend. In the Great Court of the British Museum there is a totem pole made by the Haida people of the north-west coast; it exists at the same time as the Nisga’s Column in Scotland, although it does not have the artist’s name on it, at least not on the material readily available from the museum.As we know it was acquired by Dr Charles Frederick Newcombe in 1903 his First Name – Newcastle-born physician, botanist and ethnographic collector.
Around this time, in the early 20th century, a young American linguist named John Swanton also arrived in Haida Gwaii, the Peoples Islands, once known as Queen Charlotte Islands. He listened to two storytellers, Gander and Skye, and transcribed their great myths with the help of a Haida (christened Henry Moody).
I can’t do this remarkable story justice, but a century later, the manuscripts were discovered by a brilliant Canadian poet and scholar named Robert Bringhurst, who spent over a decade teaching himself Haida, in order to translate these amazing works. A story as sharp as a knifeThe first volume of these translations (published in the UK in a fine Folio Society edition, with an introduction by Margaret Atwood) is the book that completely changed my life: how I see literature, culture and creation.
Bringhurst’s translation was itself controversial, as he himself was not of Haida descent. Yet for me, they provide a great unlock, a way of thinking about how we build bridges between cultures. They made me look at the totem pole in the British Museum with new eyes, knowing more truly that it doesn’t belong there. Dr John Giblin, global curator of art, culture and design at the National Museums of Scotland, said he hoped something new might be created following the return of the Nice Plus Pole: “A co-designed pole could tell The story of the relationship between the people, the Nishgar nation and Scotland.”
How beautiful that would be; can we understand each other better? In this way, the spirit of the Nice Joel Column—and many other sacred objects locked away in glass cases far from home—worked powerfully and transformatively.
Joe Ellison is not here
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