Thursday, 28 January 2010


Raising questions about the commoditisation of minority cultures, this feature-length documentary concerns the Haisla people of British Columbia in Canada. The titular artefact is a large mortuary totem pole, commissioned by Eagle Chief G’psgolox in honour of his dead family. In the late 1920s, the pole mysteriously went missing, but was discovered some sixty years later to have been sold by an anonymous unauthorised tipster to the Swedish government, who had placed it in the centre of an ethnographic museum in Stockholm. The film traces the story of the Haisla from the formation of their modern identity to their contemporary struggles to protect their culture. Most of the interviewees hail from the Haisla Nation, specifically from the village of Kitimaat, from where the pole was taken.

Filmmaker Gil Cardinal is a Métis himself (that is to say, of mixed European and First Nation heritage), and the documentary consequently shows great respect for its subject. Cardinal shares the Haisla’s indignation at the revelation that the Swedish government agreed to return the pole under the condition that they house it in a museum themselves, in conflict with Haisla tradition. A short video sequence showing two Haisla dignitaries visiting the pole in Sweden is a poignant moment in an otherwise sedate documentary. Outsiders may feel that more of the Haisla culture should have been explained (for example, how its members feel about adopting European names), but the film otherwise fulfils its duty. A sequel was produced in honour of the pole’s triumphant return.

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