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Yahguudangang: A Haida Pole Returns Home

Mervin Dunn (Haida) watches as the mortuary pole is carefully loaded onto a moving truck at MOA for its journey back to Haida Gwaii. Photo: Kristi Fuoco.

Yahguudangang is a Haida concept meaning to pay respect. In the summer of 2019, the University of British Columbia returned a mortuary pole to the Haida Nation. In the 1950s, UBC, the BC Provincial Museum (now the Royal BC Museum) and the federal Department of Indian Affairs, concerned over the rapidly deteriorating totem poles in the province, formed the Totem Pole Preservation Committee (TPPC). The committee worked with Indian agents and local band councils to salvage poles from many different communities and families. In 1957, the mortuary pole, along with memorial poles and house poles, were removed from the Haida village of SGang Gwaay and taken to UBC and the BC Provincial Museum.

In 2017, the Haida Repatriation Committee requested the return of this pole. The UBC Board of Governors approved this return in June 2018. This repatriation is an act of paying respect. Through this and other actions, UBC and MOA are acknowledging past injustices and working to right the past.

The returned mortuary pole, third from the left in foreground, in its original location in SGang Gwaay in 1901. MOA Archives: a035983. Photographer unrecorded.

The pole returned is a mortuary pole. It would have been erected upon the death of a high-ranking person. The base of the tree formed the top of the pole in a reverse manner from all other pole types. The individual was gently placed inside a bentwood box. The top of the pole was hollowed out and the box was put to rest in this cavity. The cavity was then covered with a large carved panel. A mortuary potlatch was held when this pole was erected and the titles of the deceased transferred to living relatives. While the name of this individual is currently unknown, future research may resurface this person’s name and history.

The mortuary pole resting at MOA, awaiting its return to Haida Gwaii. Photo by Kristi Fuoco.

This particular pole has undergone an enormous journey from its beginnings as a sapling. When it was hundreds of years old, the tree was chosen to become a mortuary pole entering its new life as a grave. For years it stood watch, experiencing the devastation wrought by introduced diseases. It felt the loneliness of the village when, in the late 1800s, the few remaining people had to leave to survive. Then in 1957 it was sawn down and dragged across the beach before being loaded onto a naval frigate and hauled to Vancouver. It was placed on display at UBC, entering the Museum in 1976. At MOA it connected to people from around the world, and finally, recently reconnected with family. Now it has returned to Haida Gwaii.

At each stage of the pole’s journey home, existing relationships were strengthened and new relationships created. This pole brought us together as we all worked to bring the pole home in a good way. Hundreds of people helped to create the pathway and ease the burden. At MOA, Musqueam provided guidance on helping the pole to separate from this territory, which had been its home for over 60 years. Haida members, including family connected with SGang Gwaay, spoke to the pole and sang to it in Haida as it left MOA, secure in a wooden crate. Museum staff lined the hallway to pay their respects.

Representatives from the Haida Repatriation Committee, along with Haida community dancers, at the ceremony to welcome the mortuary pole back to Haida Gwaii. Photo: Jill Baird.

The pole travelled north, on a crane truck, along with poles being returned from the Museum of Vancouver (MOV). Arriving in Haida Gwaii, the poles were welcomed through song by the Haida Repatriation Committee. The next day, the crew from Pro-Tech Industrial Movers—the team tasked with transporting the poles—gently positioned each pole to await the next steps in their journeys. The community gathered and the hereditary chiefs spoke, acknowledging the return of these treasures with powerful and generous words to MOA and MOV representatives. They spoke of their feelings of sorrow and joy and reminded us that much work remains to be done in the area of repatriation.