Following the Nuxalk Nation’s initial request for repatriation in 2019, the Royal British Columbia Museum finally repatriated the long-lost Snow family totem pole to Nuxalk territory last week. A fleet of 100 Nuxalkmc (Nuxalk people) escorted the truck carrying the totem pole throughout its approximately 600-mile journey back to Bella Coola, British Columbia.

According to Nuxalk Hereditary Chief Snuxyaltwa (Deric Snow), the totem pole was carved by his great-grandfather, Louie Snow, between the late 1800s and early 1900s and stood outside of the family longhouse in Talyu (South Bentinck). For the Nuxalmc, totem poles are used to denote different territories and landmarks as well as grave sites. The object was eventually lost in the early 1900s, when members of the Nuxalk Nation moved from Talyu to Bella Coola in an effort to evade the 1862 Pacific Northwest smallpox epidemic that decimated First Nations populations for decades.

The Snow family totem pole (courtesy Royal BC Museum)

On February 13, the museum removed the totem pole from its premises with the help of a crane. Over 100 Nuxalkmc cheered, drummed, and sang as the pole was lowered to the ground. Several Nuxalk women touched the totem pole with small bundles of feathers to reawaken the spirit within it. The totem pole made seven celebratory stops for blessings and spiritual reawakenings at different First Nations during its journey back to Bella Coola.

The Nuxalk Nation has not yet responded to Hyperallergic‘s request for comment.

On Monday, February 20, hundreds gathered for song, dance, and a feast at the Acwsalcta School gymnasium in honor of the totem pole’s repatriation. Hereditary Chief Snuxyaltwa told the Canadian Press that his great-grandfather’s spirit, remaining inside the totem pole, can now rest upon its return to the Nuxalk Nation.

As the Royal BC Museum recounts, an English researcher named Charles F. Newcombe came across the Snow family totem pole left behind in Talyu and purchased it in 1913 to contribute to the institution’s ethnographic collections. When the museum’s First Peoples Gallery opened in 1977, the Snow family totem pole was installed in the Totem Hall on the third floor. Hereditary Chief Snuxyaltwa wasn’t aware of the pole’s existence or location until just recently, after which he filed a request for repatriation with the museum’s former CEO Jack Lohmann.

The repatriation process was stuck in limbo for three years due to COVID-19 and other such constraints, resulting in Hereditary Chief Snuxyaltwa filing a complaint with the BC Supreme Court early last year with concerns that the museum had made no real moves to initiate the return. Earlier this month, it was announced that the Victoria-based museum would finally return the totem pole.

A spokesperson for the Royal BC Museum confirmed that there is no official statement or press release as its “approach to repatriation is community-led and it’s not our [the museum’s] story to tell.”

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Rhea Nayyar

Rhea Nayyar (she/her) is a New York-based teaching artist who is passionate about elevating minority perspectives within the academic and editorial spheres of the art world. Rhea received her BFA in Visual...

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