Nuxalk hereditary chief sues B.C. museum over return of totem pole

Tourism minister says totem pole repatriation hold-up is about logistics.

Nuxalk Hereditary Chief Snuxyaltwa – who also goes by Deric Snow – tells APTN Investigates in Decolonizing Museums Part 3, he felt a calling in 2019 to travel to the Royal British Columbia Museum (RBCM) and visit a totem pole carved by his great-grandfather, Louis Snow.

“I woke up one day and told my family that we had to go to Victoria and I don’t know what we got to go to Victoria for, but I think it’s a totem pole,” says Snow.

“So we start preparing and fundraising and doing all that kind of stuff,” says Snow, “and then we wrote a letter and got the chief and council to sign.”

When Snow visited his great-grandfather’s pole in October of 2019, it appeared to go very well.

“We asked for our totem pole and our great grandfather’s carvings that they hold in their possession,” says Snow.

Then-CEO Jack Lohman was recorded saying during the delegation’s October visit, “I recognize as the leader of this museum that this pole needs to return back to its territory — that these treasures need to return back to their territory.”

Repatriation of belongings – as well as the remains of ancestors – is something museums should be doing, according to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as well as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

But with over two years having passed since Lohman seemed to affirm the pole would be returned, it has yet to be returned.

And Snow feels he has waited long enough.

“We even offered to pay for it ourselves,” says Snow. “If that’s the problem, just get it to the door and we’ll go pick it up ourselves.”

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Earlier this year, Snow filed a civil claim in the Supreme Court of British Columbia, demanding the totem pole be returned to his family.

The way Snow sees it, there is a living spirit inside his great-grandfather’s totem pole which is not meant for the sterile confines of a museum.

“I don’t know exactly what the museum has done to these totem poles to make them stand so long,” says Snow, “but that’s against our traditional law for them to be for them to be doing that.”

Snow’s hope is to put the pole on display for a period in his community, at the school in Bella Coola.

Nuxalk hereditary chief
Nuxalk Hereditary Chief Snuxyaltwa. Photo: APTN.

And then eventually he wants it returned to his community’s original location where it will be allowed to weather the elements as well as it may.

But now that Jack Lohman has left his role at the RBCM – following allegations of a racist workplace that led to an investigation and a number of people leaving their jobs – Snow has little confidence there is any will to do what the former CEO said ought to be done.

“Jack Lohman’s promise probably went with him as he left the Royal Museum, I think,” says Snow.

Melanie Mark, the provincial minister of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport told APTN she doesn’t share Snow’s pessimism about Lohman’s pledge.

“I was given every confidence that the former CEO, Jack Lohman did commit to returning that pole and that has never changed,” says Mark.

Mark is the first First Nations woman appointed to the cabinet in B.C.

She recently published an opinion piece about an overhaul that has shut down the section of the museum containing major exhibits including a beloved Old Town mock-up, as well as Louis Snow’s totem pole.

And as far as Mark is concerned, the pole is on its way back home.

“There’s just more consideration that has to go into the logistics of transferring the pole,” says Mark, “but we will definitely work with the nation and hope to have some resolution sooner than later.”

Mark tells APTN she can see the museum from her office window in the B.C. legislative building and she finds herself thinking of it often.

And she says, there is more repatriation in the museum’s future.

“I would say we’re going to do more (repatriation) and we’re going to do it with the spirit of reconciliation at the centre,” says Mark.

At a media event held today at the RBCM, Mark, along with Premier John Horgan, announced the province would be investing $789 million to build a new seismically safe museum on the site of the old one.

APTN asked the museum’s new CEO Alicia Dubois where she stood on Jack Lohman’s pledge to return the totem pole carved by Louis Snow.

“I think since Jack spoke to it things have become a bit more complicated,” Dubois said. “I can’t get into the details because it is an active file, but our intention is always to do the right thing and repatriate appropriately and at this point, there are just some details that need to be ironed out.”

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