When Gerald Amos first walked into the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm in 1991 as part of a Haisla delegation that had come looking for a long-lost totem, he was struck by the symbolism of the way the pole was displayed.
There at the august institution, the G'psgolox totem was held in place by a metal device that looked to Mr. Amos like a shackle.
"The symbolism we saw in the steel yoke around the neck of the totem pole. . . . it was heart-wrenching," Mr. Amos said as he waited in a Vancouver hotel room before a ceremony marking the return of the culturally important pole to the Haisla people.
"And now that yoke is off. That symbolism shouldn't be lost on anyone. What this shows is that we can reconstruct this relationship [between aboriginal and European cultures]that got off to such a bad start a few hundred years ago."
The totem, which was collected in questionable circumstances in British Columbia in 1929, was unpacked at the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver yesterday.
It is the first time a native band has brought back a totem pole from overseas.
"In repatriating this pole, we have made history," said Anders Bjorklund, director of the Museum of Ethnography, who travelled from Sweden to attend a welcoming ceremony in Vancouver.
Mr. Bjorklund's museum agreed to return the totem, which was carved in 1872 for Chief G'psgolox, after the Haisla offered to provide a replacement pole and display the original in a climate-controlled facility.
In addition to carving a replica, which is on display at the Museum of Ethnography, the Haisla, with financial support from Ecotrust Canada and the Na na kila Institute, carved a second pole, which is to be erected at Misk'usa, the village location of the original totem in the Kitlope Valley. The Haisla will officially welcome the original pole to nearby Kitamaat Village, which is 10 kilometres south of Kitimat, at the head of Douglas Inlet on B.C.'s North Coast, on July 1.
The totem was first carved to mark an encounter between Chief G'psgolox and a mythical being known as Tsooda. The legend of the pole is that the chief, racked with grief, went wandering alone in the woods after the deaths of all the members of his tribe, including his own children.
Tsooda gave Chief G'psgolox a piece of rock crystal and told him to bite into it and call to his people. When he did, the dead returned from the forest alive.
The top image of the totem pole represents Tsooda, the middle image is Asoalget, a personified spirit, and the bottom has an image of a mythical grizzly bear that lived underwater.
Mr. Amos, chair of the Haisla committee that negotiated the return of the pole, said the totem tells a story of miraculous rebirth. In a way, he said, the totem itself is being reborn -- and it is giving hope to other aboriginal communities that want to recover artifacts from museums around the world.
"There's a message this totem pole can bring to other countries that hold a lot of artifacts and who are reluctant to repatriate them, like Britain for example," Mr. Amos said.
"By the way we repatriated this totem we can start to bring about an understanding it doesn't have to be doom and gloom for museums. The museum in Sweden has a replica and, since that pole was put up, it has been getting a lot more attention than the old one did," Mr. Amos said.
"In this case, the gap [in the museum's display]has been filled more than adequately. That's a message we want to get out."
Mr. Amos said that although the circumstances of the pole's original removal are dubious -- it was cut down and sold -- the Haisla don't have any ill will toward the Museum of Ethnography.
"People on our side of the fence understand museums have played an important role in protecting some of these items," Mr. Amos said.
The 1,500-kilogram pole made the journey from Sweden in a specially designed, 10-metre wooden case filled with silicone gel. It will be on display until June 19 at the Museum of Anthropology. Then it will be shown at the United Nations World Urban Forum before travelling to Kitamaat Village.