A delegation of Nuxalk Stataltmc (chiefs) made the journey to Victoria last week to begin the process of bringing home a family treasure that was removed from the community over 100 years ago.
A longhouse entrance totem pole carved by Chief Louie Snuxyaltwa (Chief Deric Snow’s great-grandfather) of South Bentinck was sold to Victoria’s Royal BC Museum in 1913 for a price of around $45, and has been there ever since.
Nuxalk culturalist Clyde Tallio, who has been spearheading a project for over a decade that is aimed at determining where Nuxalk treasures are being held, said the pole is actually part of a group of three that were taken from the Talyu village area during the enforcement of the potlatch ban, which lasted from 1884 – 1951.
“Before smallpox it’s estimated that the population of Talyu (South Bentinck) was around 3,000 people,” Tallio explained. “After smallpox, by 1921, there were 17 people left. The Indian Agent in Bella Coola wanted the people in Talyu to move to Bella Coola, so he forced them to sell these poles so they could afford to build homes in Bella Coola.”
The name “Snuxyaltwa,” was also a victim of the times. Finding the traditional name too difficult to pronounce, the Indian Agents shortened it to the English word “Snow.”
The carver, Louie Snuxyaltwa was a survivor of small pox and a Staltmc; he was a head carpenter and became the main carver after smallpox, helping to keep the art tradition alive through its proper use in potlatch and dance ceremonies.
“His beliefs in the Nuxalk way of life was so strong that his teachings were passed down to our elders of today, especially my late teachers, his granddaughters, Nunanta Amanda Siwallace and Ama Hazel Hans Sr.,” explained Tallio. “He taught his sons and other young Nuxalk men of the time to carve and build houses and canoes. He was a good man and a person in Nuxalk history who we look up to. Even though the world was against our existence as a people he remained strong and did not conform. This is why he has two descended that carry hereditary positions in the nation.”
The second pole, from the Tallio-Hans family is also at the Royal BC Museum and is on display outside. The third pole, belonging to Tallio Bob, is being housed at a national museum in Ottawa. Representatives of these families, Stataltmc (Chiefs) Anuspuxals Jeffery Snow and Anulhkw’ikmlayc Aaron Hans, were also present.
Snow said he felt compelled to make the trip to Victoria last week to see for himself where his family treasures lie and, in doing so, help to facilitate its eventual trip home. His father was one of the last people to be born at the village of Taylu, and he said he is committed to helping the pole make its journey home.
“The spirits have been speaking to me, they’re telling me what I need to do,” he said. “I have to follow my heart, and that pole is telling me it needs to come home.”
Tallio said that although the pole was forcefully sold, it’s important for people to recognize that these new processes for bringing treasures home from museums are now being created based on mutual trust and respect, and that these conversations are now operating under the new framework of reconciliation with First Nations in Canada.
“We would never sell family treasures such as longhouse poles or any other poles or masks. It is not our tradition and it never was,” explained Tallio. “However, this is not about shaming the museum or shaming the history. These conversations are about building relationships and working together to bring these treasures home.”
Royal BC Museum repatriation specialist Lou-Ann Neel says the conversation is now underway to get the pole home, and that each request is handled differently. At present, the museum has been particularly focused on repatriating human remains, and Neel said this has been the top priority for the museum.
“The museum had about 700 ancestral remains and that number has now been reduced to about 300,” she explained. “Communities made it very clear that they wanted their ancestors back, so we have been working hard to make sure this happens.”
Tallio also confirmed that Nuxalk remains are being housed in the museum, and that conversations are underway to make sure they are returned to the community.
As far as returning larger items like poles, Neel said the process is unique to each request and the accompanying situation.
“We have about six active repatriation requests right now and they’re all different,” Neel explained. “We really need to understand each situation and how best to handle the return, so that will take many conversations with the community and some time to work out.”
Neel said the museum is committed to working with the Nation to determine the best course of action for bringing the pole home, as well as helping secure funding to make that happen.
Tallio said he would like to see a repository created in the community for the benefit of the Nation. A repository is distinct from a museum in that items are held for community purposes and not necessarily open to the public.
“We need our treasures back because they hold that living history, and as a community we need to learn from that,” Tallio explained. “When you see how these items are displayed in the museum it’s like we’re already gone, and that’s not the case. We are very much here and we need to connect our people back to these treasures that can teach us all so much of our history, our culture, and our traditional laws.
“The benefits of returning the treasures home will help our nation heal from the historic traumas that still effect us as a people today. Having a strong cultural identity and roots to our community will strengthen our people and will guide us to being a self-determining nation again.”
For Snow, finally bringing the pole home would finally offer some closure in some of the darker chapters of his family’s history, and he’s planning a potlatch to be held in conjunction with its eventual return.
“We know this will take time but we are now preparing for the pole to return to our family,” said Snow. “We are looking forward to it standing in its rightful place once again.”