Montreal Museum of Fine Arts appeals for return of wooden hand stolen from sacred totem

Montreal’s foremost art museum has issued a multi-tier appeal to the public to help locate and ultimately return a priceless wooden hand mysteriously removed from a totem pole affixed outside the museum’s entrance.

Kwakiutl artist Charles Joseph’s “Residential School Totem Pole” has towered over the North side of Sherbrooke St. for over two years now.

The 21 metre redwood cedar totem – carved out of a 1,000 year old tree – is, for Joseph, both a symbol of personal reconciliation and a public commemoration of his years spent in residential school.

(This picture of the totem soaring above the Montreal museum was taken shortly after its installation. Photo: Robbie Purdon/APTN)

From bottom to top, the totem showcases significant cultural symbols. Joseph’s family members, the cedar ring symbolizing safety, the “wild woman,” the killer whale – a guardian of memory – the crow, the strong and wise bear, an arctic fox, witness of the past, and the Kulus: great black ravens believed to  be responsible for the creation of Canada’s West Coast, according to traditional lore.

“I need to tell the story in this form, but it is about survivors from across Canada,” Joseph said at the time of the totem’s public installation in the presence of Elders and dignitaries in 2017.

“It was quite a traumatic event for him, and it took him a long time to, how can I say, heal the wounds,” explained museum curator Sylvie Lacerte. “[the carving] was kind of a healing process for him, kind of a catharsis.”

(A passerby noticed that a hand was missing from the totem. Photo: Robbie Purdon/APTN)

While it took two years for Joseph to complete his seminal work, it took just minutes for a piece of it to vanish under the cover of night.

Over the weekend, the museum began receiving messages from a concerned passerby who noticed that the totem was missing its left hand.

After consulting security footage, it was determined that two hooded, unidentifiable assailants removed and made away with the hand around 3 a.m. on Friday morning.

According to Lacerte, the security footage had no sound, and was dimly lit – complicating the need to establish motive or method of removal, she said.

The hand was reportedly affixed to the sculpture with a dowel, two screws, a copper cuff, and glue.

“In order to [remove it], you’d have to hang yourself off of the hand, or jump up, or have someone help you piggyback,” Lacerte explained.

Lacerte says both the owner and the artist were notified before news of the theft was made public, and that the latter is ready and willing to carve a replacement – something that will take time, however, and at a cost to the piece’s artistic value.

“It’s lost its integrity because it’s missing a part,” she said.

Meanwhile, the museum is stressing that on its own, the hand holds little to no significance as an art piece.

“For the hand – the value of the hand – it doesn’t have any value unless it’s attached to the totem itself,” Lecerte added.

Anyone with information is urged to contact the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, or Montreal Police.

Reporter / Montreal

Lindsay was born and raised on the unceded territory of Tiohtià:ke (Montréal), and joined APTN News as a Quebec correspondent in 2019. While in university, she collaborated on a multiplatform project about the revitalization of the Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) language to commemorate the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Before APTN Lindsay worked at the Eastern Door, CTV Montreal and the Montreal Gazette.