________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 8 . . . . December 10, 2004


Totem: The Return of the G'psgolox Pole.

Gil Cardinal (Writer & Director). Marke Slipp (Editor and Associate Director). Bonnie Thompson and Jerry Krepakevich (Producers). Graydon McCrea (Executive Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2003.
70 min., VHS, $99.95.
Order Number: C9103 047.

Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.

Review by Gail de Vos.

*** /4


From the lush rainforest near Kitamaat Village, BC to the National Museum of Ethnography in Sweden, the documentary traces the fascinating journey of the Haisla to reclaim the traditional mortuary pole. Bringing to light a powerful story of cultural rejuvenation, the film raises provocative questions about the ownership and meaning of Aboriginal objects held in museums. (From the liner notes.)

In 1929, the Haisla/Xanaksiyala people of northern British Columbia returned from a fishing trip to discover the mortuary pole erected by chief G'psgolox to honour the death of his wife and children had been cut down and taken away to an unknown destination. Traditionally, once a mortuary pole fell, it was left where it had fallen to decompose, to return to the Earth. Thus the removal of the pole was much more than theft for its people, and they did not stop talking about it and looking for it. It was finally located, in 1990, at the National Museum of Ethnography in Sweden. In 1991, members of the Haisla Nation went to Sweden to see the pole and to begin negotiations to bring it home.

     The Swedish government, after consultations for three years, decided that the pole could be returned to its people. There was only one condition: it had be housed and protected in a museum. The Haisla Nation, a poor community, could not afford to build a museum nor did many of the people believe that an outside nation should dictate where the pole should reside, particularly in light of their beliefs about mortuary poles. However, the community rallied around the idea of bringing the pole home. They created two exact replicas of the pole, carved by the grandson of the original carver, and took one to Sweden where they finished the carving as a living museum artefact. The new totem pole was gifted to the museum and lays in wait to this day since the original pole still has not been returned. The second pole was erected at the site of the original theft.

     The documentary switches between the rainforest of Kitamaat and the Swedish museum, weaving Haisla and Swedish voices (in English), to tell the story of the pole, the negotiations and to highlight the differences between Western museum practices and Native traditions. It also denotes that the Canadian government is not aiding the Haisla people to repatriate the emotionally charged G'psgolox pole.

     Award-winning director Gil Cardinal filmed master carvers at work, capturing their dedication and respect for their art and culture, and he interviewed members both of the Native and museum communities for this in-depth look at the pole and its diverse significances for the people involved. Oh, yes, a year later, the original pole still has not made its way home.


Gail de Vos In addition to being a professional storyteller and author or co-author of seven books related to storytelling, Gail de Vos is also an instructor in the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, AB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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