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Close-up view of the middle section of three totem poles. In the frame are a human face, a wolf, and a raven.

The Nisga'a Museum: Repatriating Indigenous belongings and keeping culture alive

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Through repatriation of belongings and replicating lost poles, the Nisga’a people are not only reclaiming what is rightfully theirs, but ensuring their traditional way of life and legacy remain intact—one cultural tour at a time.

The Nisga'a Museum | Grant Harder

Healing With the Nisga'a

Standing on the trail at Ksi Wil Ksi-Baxhl Mihl or Crater Creek, it’s hard not to feel awe as you look over the landscape of lava fields fringed by mountains. This massive expanse of volcanic rock is a reminder of when the Tseax volcano erupted in roughly 1780. Back then, a series of explosions spilled hot lava into the Tseax River where it created a dam, forming Lava Lake. Then, the lava flow continued northward toward the Nass River, filling the flat valley floor, destroying at least two Indigenous villages and killing an estimated 2000 people with fires and what Nisga’a elders called “poison smoke.”

Extending over 32 km, the black volcanic plains have a depth of up to 12 m and much of the rock is now covered in colourful lichen. In some places soil has formed and trees have begun to grow—a sign of the land slowly healing itself. This same healing is also being experienced by the Nisga’a Nation—something that becomes more apparent as you spend time on Nisga’a lands.

The Nisga'a Museum
Learning Nisga'a history from Master Carver Calvin McNeil | Northern BC Tourism/Christos Sagiorgis
Carver Calvin McNeil on the History, Culture and People of Nisga’a Lands

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Learning About the Nisga'a

The Nisga’a Nation is one of the dozens of culturally unique First Nations in British Columbia. Made up of 7,000 people living across the province, it includes four Villages located in the Nass River valley in northwestern BC. Home to the Nisga’a people since time immemorial, this valley was declared Crown Land in the 1880s. It took 113 years for the governments of Canada and BC to settle with the Nisga’a Nation, creating The Nisga’a Final Agreement, the first modern treaty in BC on May 11, 2000. 

The Agreement provides the Nisga’a people with rights that include ownership of 2,019 square kilometers of land; an annual allocation of salmon and other traditional foods; and funding to deliver health, education, and social services. The treaty also makes provision for the return of cultural items and for the joint management of Anhluut’ukwsim Laxmihl Angwinga’asanskwhl Nisga’a or Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Park.

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The Drowned Forest along the Nisga'a Auto Tour | Northern BC Tourism/Andrew Strain

Back on the auto tour, a self-guided drive through Nisg̱a’a Lands that blends natural features with cultural teachings, I make a stop at #7, Wilp T’aam Lax- Sankw’ax, or the park’s Visitor Centre. I learn that this was the first provincial park to offer visitors the opportunity to see the landscape’s natural features through an Indigenous lens. It’s this subtle shift in perspective away from the colonial viewpoint that invites you to look at land and culture more holistically and begins to give you a sense of the deep connection the Nisga’a people have to their lands.

Arriving at stop #16, Wilp-Adokshl Nisga’a, or the Nisga’a Museum, I’m greeted by Kaitlyn Stephens, one of the museum’s youth tour guides. Most staff at the museum are Nisga’a, and as more young people become trained in museum work, it’s expected eventually all will be. Stephens begins the museum tour by saying the facility opened in 2011 as part of the treaty agreement and was purpose-built to house the over 300 ancestral items that were repatriated from the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Royal BC Museum. She explains that the items on display are more than art pieces; instead, they are physical representations of her culture and contain everything from moral lessons, to spiritual teaching, to information about the Nisga’a way of life. 

The Nisga'a Auto Tour
The Nisga'a Museum | Northern BC Tourism/Christos Sagiorgis

SHARING CULTURE THROUGH STORYTELLING

Standing in front of a mask, which had been returned to its rightful owners from a government museum, Stephens shares a myth she was told. Long ago two children were catching salmon. One child stuck sticks into a salmon’s back, set them on fire and then returned the fish to the river. The second cut a salmon’s back and put rocks in it which caused the fish to float on its side. As the children laughed at the struggling fish, an elder saw them and warned them not to abuse nature. Then the ground began to tremble and shake. Because nature’s harmony had been upset, the volcano began to erupt.

As the people fled, a supernatural being known as Gwaxts’agat emerged. Represented by the repatriated wooden mask with the long straight nose we were looking at, Stephens says one, or maybe two, Gwaxts’agat used their long noses to block the lava’s advance, saving the remaining Nisga’a people. “When scientists came recently—they saw a straight line where the lava stops. They couldn’t explain it,” says Stephens.

The coastal community of Gingolx | Grant Harder

The Indigenous people in BC and across Canada endured many horrors with colonization. They were decimated by illness, removed from their ancestral lands, and had their cultures outlawed. Part of the criminalization of their cultures included the removal or destruction of all outward signs of their spirituality, heritage, and art. For the Nisga’a people this meant their monumental house and memorial poles were toppled and taken by missionaries and federal Indian agents who sold them to traders. Smaller items—from the sacred to the everyday—were also sold away in an effort to force the Nisga’a to assimilate.

Stephens says that some of her people tried to hide regalia and other ancestral items, but they were caught. Everything that had been hidden was collected and burned. So she says they became better at hiding things. “They took the house poles that had been cut down and turned them inward inside their homes. They also buried things,” says Stephens. “People still find things that were hidden.” Then she shows me an old record player. “We even used their technology.” She explains that when her ancestors sang their own songs, someone would be on lookout, and “they’d quickly put on a record if someone came.”

Learning from Stephens, as she explains the items in the museum, you begin to understand why the tours are given by Nisga’a youth. While having the opportunity to learn about the Nation directly from a member helps build understanding between cultures, it’s what’s happening for the young museum staff that’s even more important. “We’re a museum focused on storytelling,” says Theresa Schober, the museum’s director and curator. “So the youth are often teaching as they learn.” Something she says helps young people build pride in their culture as well as a connection to their elders.

While introducing visitors to the Nisga’a culture is important (“Where would you rather learn about the Nisga’a? Here, or in an Institution in Europe?” asks Schober), she says this is just one small part of the museum’s role. “These are cultural belongings that were removed from the valley from the late 1800s through the early 1900s.” Schober continues, “The museum gives citizens the opportunity to interact with their own ancestral possessions.” Schober explains that in the low season, the museum closes to public tours to give the Nisga’a people the opportunity to reconnect with their belongings and privately re-establish their sacred cultural relationships–something that’s essential to their healing.

Preserving arts and culture at the Nisga'a Museum | Northern BC Tourism/Mike Seehagel

Repatriating Ancestral Possessions

As an ally, and not a Nation member, Schober says another role of the museum is to begin to identify Nisga’a items that are located in museums around the world. “The cultural belongings that the Nisga’a Museum is steward of come from only two institutions,” she says. The plan now is to look at increasing their collection space (and hoping to have the opportunity to use it) while at the same time searching databases at other institutions. One of the problems is that in the rush to acquire Indigenous belongings, those long-ago collectors didn’t pay much attention to where things came from, so “there’s likely Nisga’a cultural property that’s mislabeled.”

While repatriation might be the ultimate goal, carver Calvin McNeil knows it may not be possible to get everything back. At the carving shed at stop #15 Laxg – alts’ap Village, McNeil is working on a replica of the Eagle-Halibut Pole of Laay’, an ancestral pole currently located in the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) in Vancouver. Thought to have been carved between 1860 and 1870 by a Nass River carver named Oye’a’, the pole was taken from the village of Git’iks in the late 1920s by Canadian anthropologist Marius Barbeau. 

McNeil says the pole must have made quite a journey after it was toppled and floated away down the river. And it wasn’t until 1975 that the fragmented remains were reassembled and repaired by a master Nisga’a carver, the late Norman Tait (May 20, 1941–May 21, 2016), and then put on display at MOA. Even still, McNeil says parts of the pole are missing including the middle section, the decorative box held by Hagwi’look’am ts’im-aks (Man Underneath), several carved claws, and the eagle from the top of the pole.

Passing down knowledge from father to son | Northern BC Tourism/Christos Sagiorgis

So, just as Tait did, McNeil searches for clues in historical photographs and paintings, while using current photos from MOA to trace Oye’a’s and Tait’s carved lines. As he talks, McNeil picks up one of the arms from Hagwi’look’am ts’im-aks. He was never able to get a good photograph of the box Hagwi’look’am ts’im-aks held. Instead he has an old photo showing the badly done copy of the original—but he says he got permission from the pole’s ancestral owner to “Nisga’a it” and carve it so the formline is correct. Now, he says, the next challenge is to build the hinged arms from nothing more than a photograph. “None of the carvers I’ve talked to know how to do it (make the hinged arms). It’s not been done for 200 years.”

“But they say, I’ve got it,” he continues, “So I’ll follow protocol and trust in the process. I’ll believe that the ancestors left me enough clues to keep going forward.”

 “When this pole goes up, it’s going to tell the story of who we are all over again,” says McNeil. “So in carving it as a replica (the ancestors) are actually teaching me, as a carver, how to tell a story I didn’t know.”

Although McNeil says he’d rather have the original pole brought home, because culturally it’s considered his ancestor, he believes that like having access to the items in the museum is important, working to raise the new replica pole is a vital step in the process of his Nation’s healing. “Our great aunts always said that when our poles come home…when our belongings come home…all the stories and our identity will come back to us.” 

He continues, “So by trying to copy our artwork, by following the laws and protocols, by sharing it with the youth, some of what was lost comes back.”

Carving Shed

Visit Respectfully: A Word from the Nisga'a

Come with an open mind and heart. We are a distinct, self-governing First Nation as well as proud British Columbians and Canadians. Part of the joy of visiting any foreign land is engaging with the local history and culture. We Nisga’a are renowned for our hospitality, curiosity, and friendliness. We hope your time with us awakens your spirit and that you leave enriched. Remember: we are all connected—everything and everyone.

Before travelling to Nisg̱a’a Lands, prepare yourself—you are entering our homeland.

While you’re visiting us, please:

  • Obey all posted signs
  • Do not fish or travel the backcountry without a permit from Nisg̱a’a Lisims Government
  • Wait to be invited before entering someone’s home or property
  • Ask for permission before taking pictures of people or pts’aan (totem poles)
  • Respect closures—please walk, hike, drive, park, or camp only
    where permitted
  • Respect wildlife and keep a safe distance
  • Feel free to ask questions.

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