Owning artifacts 

Totem uses pole to probe issues

What: Totem: The Return of the G’psgolox Pole

Where: Rainbow Theatre

When: 9 p.m.

Admission: by donation

A conflict between a northern British Columbia aboriginal village and the government of Sweden sounds like a preposterous premise for a film. But there it is in Edmonton-based director Gil Cardinal’s documentary Totem: Return of the G’psgolox Pole.

The film chronicles the modern day attempts by the low-key members of the Haisla Nation of Kitimaat Village to have a 19 th century mortuary totem returned to them. In 1929 a Swedish emissary stationed in Prince Rupert acquired the pole and turned it over to his government. The three metre high monolith eventually found a home in a Stockholm museum, where it remains to this day.

This is no mere carving. The pole represents 19 th Century Chief G’psgolox’s encounter with a mystical being, who legend has it, resurrected his dead children. As is tradition with aboriginal totems the G’psgolox was supposed to stand until it naturally decayed, returning to the earth from whence it came. The G’psgolox, however, was sawed off at the base and carted off to a sterile Scandinavian museum where it has been preserved.

Oral tradition has kept the story alive through the following generations, which started searching for the pole. After it was discovered in Sweden, negotiations with the government concluded the Haisla could have the pole back, but under strict conditions: to create a replica for the Stockholm museum and to build their own museum/cultural centre to house the pole and keep it preserved. To return it to the original site and allow it to return to the earth was not an option.

It was at this point in February 2000, Cardinal says he was propositioned by the Haisla to make a film documenting the events. With the support of the National Film Board he launched the project immediately.

Cardinal says his film was supposed to feature a happy ending with the pole coming home to its sparkling new cultural centre, but instead, three years later, the Haisla Nation are still short on required funds so the pole waits in Stockholm.

But as the film is screened across North America, audience members are initiating their own calls to action. Cardinal says between $3,000 and $4,000 has been raised so far, activism he never intended when he set out making the film.

"That’s the wonderful thing about documentaries, they take on a life of their own," he says. "It’s been really incredible the momentum the film has kind of galvanized."

The most interesting aspect of the film is the dialogue that emerges regarding the responsibility of governments and individuals toward artifacts. Though there is no question who the pole belongs to; the Swedish government’s reasoning behind their restrictive actions is the preservation of an invaluable artifact. They cannot accept that the pole return to the earth since they are convinced it is invaluable in an ethno-anthropological sense. Larger issues emerge: who owns cultural artifacts? The descendants of the creators or those who have gone to all expense and effort to preserve them for the ages?

So in a film about the conflict between Northern B.C. native peoples and Swedish curators, there are larger issues at hand, set against the calming rhythm of Haisla master carvers peeling away layer upon layer of wood from the replica pole projects. No one knows exactly when the G’psgolox Pole will be returned, but with each screening, the small amounts collected bring the whole matter one step closer to resolution.

"It’s been marvelous to have the film be a catalyst toward the objective," says Cardinal. "You make a film and maybe it gets shown on TV once or twice or at a festival and then it just kind of sits. And it’s great that this has taken on a life of its own."

Totem: The Return of the G’spgolox Pole screens as a pre-Whistler Film Festival event at Rainbow Theatre at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 3. Admission is by donation, with proceeds supporting efforts of the Haisla Nation to create a facility to house and maintain the preservation efforts of the G’spgolox Totem. Cardinal will be in attendance. Call 604-932-3323 for information.

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