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Totem: The Return of the G'psgolox Pole

Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Digital Betacam (NTSC) Colour
Runtime: 70 min
Director: Gil Cardinal
Producer: Jerry Krepakevich, Bonnie Thompson
Executive Producer: Graydon McCrea
Writer: Gil Cardinal
Cinematographer: Daron Donahue
Editor: Marke Slipp
Sound: Paul Sharpe
Music: Clode Hamelin
Production Company: National Film Board of Canada

In 1929, the Haisla people of northwestern British Columbia returned from a fishing trip to find their tribe’s nine-metre mortuary pole, known as the G’psgolox Pole (pronounced “GUPS-go-lux”), severed at the base and removed from their village. The fate of the nineteenth-century artifact remained unknown to the Haisla for over sixty years, until it was finally located in the National Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm. Firmly believing that the G’psgolox Pole should never have been removed in the first place, members of the Haisla Nation journeyed to Sweden in 1991 to see the totem and to begin negotiations for its return. The ensuing complex repatriation talks (the Swedish government considered the pole state property and refused to relinquish it unless it was to be housed in a museum) foreground the difference between Western institutional practice and Aboriginal traditions.

Moving between the lush rainforest of Kitamaat Village and the museum in Stockholm, Totem: The Return of the G'psgolox Pole examines the difficulty in repatriating Native artifacts and raises provocative questions about issues of cultural ownership and the significance of Native customs. As discussions between the two sides progress, the film elegantly weaves together Haisla and Swedish voices, offering candid perspectives on the repatriation process and the enduring significance of this cultural heirloom. As the process drags on, Cardinal demonstrates how the grace and dignity of the Haisla people prevail.

Totem had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival® and went on to win the award for Best Documentary at the ImagineNative Film and Media Arts Festival in Toronto and the Golden Sheaf Award for Best Multicultural Film at the Yorkton Film Festival.

By: Liz Czach, Andrew McIntosh