July 1 may be celebrated as Canada Day for many, but for the Haisla and Henaksiala Nations, it’s G’psgolox Day, celebrating the return of the g’psgolox pole to Haisla territory.
The g’psgolox pole is a mortuary pole that was made in the late 1800s. G’psgolox is a Kitlope chief’s name, and in the early 1870s, the Chief G’psgolox had lost his entire family and community to smallpox. He was walking through the forest where his people were buried, grieving his loss and praying for guidance, when he was met by a spirit by the name of Tsooda. Tsooda handed him a rock crystal and told him to bite down on it while wishing for his family’s return, and his prayers would be answered. The Chief G’psgolox did so, and his family members began returning to him.
G’psgolox requested and commissioned a carver to carve a pole to honour Tsooda and the vision that helped him reunite with his family members, and it was named the g’psgolox pole after the Kitlope chief, with Tsooda at the top.
In 1928, the pole was taken from its place in Misk’usa, a Henaksiala village, to be installed in Stockholm’s Museum of Ethnography. However, it was put in storage for several decades until it was finally brought out and put on display in 1980.
Haisla members located the pole in 1991 and flew to Stockholm to confirm it was theirs, as they had been unaware of its whereabouts for over half a century.
After negotiating terms and raising funds, the g’psgolox pole was returned July 1, 2006 and celebrations ensued. This marked a monumental turn in Canadian history, as it was the first and largest repatriated item from Europe.
Haisla Nation Community Cultural Coordinator Teresa Windsor said the celebrations that occurred in Kitamaat Village on July 1, 2006 were huge, as it was a historical moment for Indigenous peoples everywhere.
“It was well attended…pretty much the entire world came to Kitamaat Village on that day, that’s what it felt like,” Windsor said. “The last Chief G’psgolox, he played a big part in the totem pole returning, because it was his grandmother who made her children aware of the missing pole and asked them to make it their life mission to locate it, to bring it back. It’s a pretty significant piece of history, and not only for Haisla Henaksiala people, but for Indigenous people all over.”
Windsor said that Cecil Paul Senior, a Haisla Elder, played a big role in the pole’s return, as well, as he is the brother of the last man who had the name G’psgolox.
Windsor said that, since the 2006 celebration, there haven’t really been community celebrations to for G’psgolox Day.
“It’s the first year actually that our governing body has acknowledged and has pushed for that day to be recognized,” Windsor said.
She said that previously, on Guatlap Days — the celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day in Kitamaat Village — they would acknowledge and share information about the g’psgolox pole, to remember its history. Last year, they had a screen playing documentaries from the National Film Board called “Totem: Return of the G’psgolox Pole” and its follow-up, “Totem: Return and Renewal,” which document the Haisla peoples’ search for the pole, and the journey of its subsequent return to the Haisla territory.
Windsor said there are some in the Village who disagree with celebrating, as the tradition is that if a totem pole falls, it’s supposed to be left to return to the earth. In this case, however, the pole didn’t fall, it was cut and forcibly removed from its original place, others argue.
“Some people think that it was bad luck to bring a pole that had been taken down and moved around so much.”
She said some feel it shouldn’t be celebrated because of the solemn story behind it, as well, but Windsor thinks it’s an important piece of history for everyone, not just Haisla and Henaksiala people, to know and understand.
“I think it’s an important piece of history to acknowledge because it comes with a rich history, as well,” Windsor said. “It’s not the most pleasant piece of history, but I think it’s very relevant today, considering we’re being affected by a pandemic again. I think that’s an important piece of history to look back on, because even a lot of our people had forgotten that we’d been greatly impacted by a pandemic.”
Going forward, Windsor said she hopes this is something that becomes a yearly celebration on July 1, especially with the 15th anniversary of the pole’s return coming up in 2021.
“I’m really happy that more people are joining and celebrating and honouring that day, because it was a pretty significant piece of history for Haisla and Henaksiala,” Windsor said. “It’s actually pretty exciting to see that it’s something [our governing body] supports and want to help commemorate.”