Using Film to Move a Totem Pole

Sandra Rozental, New York University

In 2003, Gil Cardinal directed Totem: The Return of the G’psgolox Pole, a film documenting the Haisla people’s pilgrimage to Stockholm to concretize negotiations for the return of an object that, despite its absence from the community since the nineteenth century when it was illegally sold to a collector, has remained present in the community through memory and stories. The film raises issues of ownership and meaning by showing, through interviews and other footage, the different points of view expressed both by community members, and the museum in Stockholm’s staff. However, the film ends with the Totem pole still on display in Sweden, after the community has made an exact replica for the museum. CLICK for Photos
There is little hope for the original’s successful repatriation because of different ideas about the role of heritage and objects: for the museum, the issue at stake is preservation, whereas for the community, tradition and community norms need to be respected and the pole left to decay naturally according to custom. The film is slanted toward the community’s perspective, largely showing the museum in Stockholm as inflexible and bureaucratic, but also occasionally exploitative of native lore. Thus, Totem is above all else an advocacy film that denounces the complications of repatriation almost begging its viewers to do something about it. The film’s activism, however, goes beyond the actual message of the film itself: Totem has generated interesting effects that place the possibility of using film as a medium to change museum practice very much as a viable option.
The current Ethnografiska Museet was designed in 1980 specifically to house the nine-meter Totem Pole that was brought to Sweden in the 1920s, originally raised in the open, outside the museum’s first building in Wallingatan, and then horizontally in an unheated storeroom, until the new museum in Djurgarden opened. The new building was created around the Totem pole, giving it a central location, not just in the physical space of the museum, but also in the museum’s storyline. The museum produced postcards and other souvenir objects that carried the image of the Totem pole, making it almost like a trademark or logo that identified the museum.
In 1991, as documented in the film, the Xanaksiyala people, a part of the Haisla people, requested the return of the Totem Pole, and negotiated that a replacement pole would be carved and shipped to the museum in 2000 where it would be finished by master carvers as a gift from the Haisla to the people of Sweden. In 2003, given the complications described in Cardinal’s film, despite the arrival and completion of the new, the old pole was not returned. In 2006, however, a visit to the Ethnografiska Museum reveals a very different outcome. Neither the old nor the new pole can be found inside the museum, where a museum label placed where the old pole used to be displayed, ushers visitors to a screening room where Cardinal’s film runs continuously in a loop. In the back wall of the gallery, a series of photographs and documents detail the process of negotiation and repatriation of the pole, making the return of the pole very much an integral part of the museum’s narrative. If one entered the museum from its main entrance and wondered on its grounds, one would catch a glimpse of the replacement pole standing proudly in the open outside the museum where it has stood since March 2006, when 13 members of the Haisla Nation came to Stockholm to ceremoniously raise the new pole, and send off the original.

The Ethnografiska Museet has also generated a publication that is given to visitors free of charge entitled “The Haisla Pole at the Museum of Ethnography” where the story of the G’psgolox pole is told through text and photographs, both recent and archival. Interestingly, the film by Gil Cardinal is only mentioned at the back as a film that “exhaustively presents the totem pole’s remarkable story”, but the actual message of the film is never mentioned, nor are any stills from the film used to illustrate the texts. Through this publication, the use of the film and the repatriation process in its galleries, the museum plots itself as a benevolent entity that was responsibly concerned both with meeting Haisla requests, as well as heritage of humanity conservation. As the publication states, under a caption that reads “A symbol of Culture, Language, and Traditions”:

Today many Haisla strive to regain land and water rights, to prevent pollution and to rejuvenate their culture. The return of the G’psgolox’s totem pole is of great importance to the efforts to interest young people in culture, language and traditions. To the Museum of Ethnography, the totem pole project represents a new chapter in a unique cooperation with the Haisla and other first nations around the world.

This statement conceals the frustrating demands that the museum imposed on the Haisla, a main thread throughout Cardinal’s documentary, making the process of return a collaborative process, rather than a negotiation where the Haisla had to cede on many accounts.
The original G’psgolox pole was returned to Kitmaat Village on June 30th 2006. On July 1st, ceremonial dancing welcomed the pole back to its ancestral homeland. The event was crowned by a screening of Totem as part of its official welcome. Unfortunately, the Haisla were still unable to provide a space for the pole to remain in the community. One option was to have the pole remain in Vancouver at the UBC Museum where it had been taken in July 2006 to be displayed for a forum, until the community could gather enough funds to build a cultural center of its own (a project estimated to take about 3 to 5 years). However, the community members who had so arduously fought for the pole’s return were not satisfied with this option. An uneasy compromise was met through the Kitimat City Centre Mall, where the pole is currently on view until a better venue can be built. Gil Cardinal was present at the mall’s unveiling of the pole, and is making an updated version of his film.