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Sim’oogit Ni’isjoohl (Chief Earl Stephens) stands next to a replica of the Ni'isjoohl memorial pole in the Nisga'a Village of Laxgalts’ap, B.C.Nisga’a Nation/Handout

“Before the Museum of Scotland opened to the public on Monday,” The Globe’s Marsha Lederman wrote this week, “a group of seven Nisga’a delegates marched into its Living Lands gallery wearing ceremonial regalia and singing traditional songs. They were there to visit a totem pole that had been taken from their village in Northwestern British Columbia nearly 100 years ago – and which may be headed back to Nisga’a territory.”

The Nisga’a delegates are part of a growing international movement to reclaim the artifacts taken from colonized and exploited peoples. Only this week, Germany signed an agreement with Nigeria to transfer ownership of hundred of the Benin Bronzes looted from the African kingdom in the 19th century.

The Indigenous peoples of British Columbia have some of the strongest claims. Collectors descended on the West Coast in droves in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They scooped up masks, blankets, rattles, bowls, ladles, carved boxes, totem poles, canoes and a galaxy of other superb artifacts. A B.C. artist and art historian, Bill Holm, once estimated that there were 115,000 to 125,000 catalogued specimens in museums around the world.

Critics marvelled at how a little-known people scattered among the inlets and islands of this rainy coast could have produced such powerful and sophisticated works. Museums across the Western world – including leading institutions in Berlin, London and Washington – joined in the gold rush, arguing that they were only acting to salvage the evidence of a dying culture.

“The scramble for skulls and skeletons, for poles and paddles, for masks and mummies, was pursued sometimes with respect, occasionally with rapacity, often with avarice,” wrote Simon Fraser University historian Douglas Cole in his 1985 book Captured Heritage. “By the time it ended there was more Kwakiutl material in Milwaukee than Mamalilikulla, more Salish pieces in Cambridge than in Comox.”

As a result, visitors can see the glories of Northwest Coast art in great public museums, such as the Field in Chicago. But the people of the coast were robbed of their heritage.

Addressing this injustice is not an easy matter. Many museums are simply stuffed with things that used to belong to distant, colonized civilizations. If they gave it all back, the British Museum would be a half-empty echo chamber. And it would be a shame to break up magnificent collections such as the Northwest Coast Hall of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, recently renovated with the guidance of Indigenous curators.

But there are ways to make progress without repatriating every last fish hook. One is to share the treasures, making sure they visit the places they were made through loans and travelling exhibitions. Another is with virtual exhibits and other digital means, a growing thrust of modern museums. Yet another is to change the way the artifacts are displayed, bringing in contemporary Indigenous experts to explain them and making clear the exploitive terms under which they were acquired. The Field attempts something like this in its renovated Native North America Hall, which opened this spring.

In case of clear theft or confiscation, simply returning them for good is often the best course. This week, as the Nisga’a were in Scotland, I was lucky enough to visit the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay near the north end of Vancouver Island. U’mista means “the return of something important” in the language of the Kwakwaka’wakw, as the Kwakiutl are now more often known.

It contains a wonderful collection of masks and other objects seized by government authorities in a crackdown on an illegal potlatch in 1921. Most were returned after a repatriation campaign in the 1960s. Among them is an exquisite sun mask sent back as recently as 2019, on long-term loan from the British Museum. The objects are home, yet there for anyone to see and admire if they make the trip to Cormorant Island or look at the online display.

The Nisga’a seek a similar result. They say Canadian ethnographer Marius Barbeau snatched their totem pole in 1929 while they were away from their village gathering food. He simply took it down and shipped it off to Scotland, as if it belonged to no one. They would like to bring it back and erect it outside the Nisga’a Museum, which, like the U’mista centre, was built to house reclaimed treasures.

It seems only just. Being near the pole, said one member of the delegation to Scotland, “we could feel the breath of our ancestors.”

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