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Totem pole considered cultural appropriation removed from Nelson’s Hume School

Janene Stein still remembers carving the Hume School pole as a student. Nearly 50 years later she wishes she hadn’t.

In the early 1970s, the Nelson elementary school decided to construct a story pole in the style of totem poles made by First Nations peoples such as the Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw and Tsimshian on the west coast of B.C.

The pole’s construction was considered a centennial project and did not include any Indigenous consultation or participation. Totem poles are also not part of local First Nations’ culture in the West Kootenay.

So when it was raised on Nov. 15, 1972, as a monument to endangered species, Stein said there was no consideration given to the pole as cultural appropriation.

“The spiritual aspect was not thought about or talked about when we were carving these images, but now we have a different perspective on what that means,” said Stein, who is now principal at Hume School.

In July, the pole was removed from Hume after its base was found to be rotting. Stein said she had watched students climb on the pole, which had begun swaying from its location at the edge of the school yard overlooking Nelson Avenue.

But Stein had already approached School District 8 about the pole’s problematic history in 2019 with a presentation to the district’s Aboriginal Advisory Council of Education, which includes representation from the Lower Kootenay Band, the local Métis chapter and Colville Confederated Tribes.

The history, she said, was not apparent to passersby.

“If you are someone who didn’t know the stories from the 70s and you drive by it, that’s what you’re looking at. You’re looking at something that appears to be cultural appropriation, even though the intention absolutely was not.”

Initially, Stein said the plan was to make the pole’s removal into a school project in relation to reconciliation. But the COVID-19 lockdown, as well as the pole’s deteriorating condition, forced that plan to be scrapped.

The pole, which was actually located on city-owned land, was then removed by city employees before it was cut into pieces.

Superintendent Christine Perkins said the pole was dismantled in part because it had rotted, but also because the district didn’t want to see it moved to a new location.

“We don’t want to be seen as a community and as a district that’s involved in cultural appropriation,” said Perkins.

District principal of Aboriginal education Gail Higginbottom said early discussions are underway with First Nations stakeholders to replace the pole with regionally appropriate artwork.

The removal of the pole, she said, is part of an ongoing and necessary national reassessment of the past.

“It is about having conversations, it’s about asking hard questions, it’s about critically looking at what we have taken for granted as culturally appropriate,” said Higginbottom.

“I think that it is a community responsibility, it’s a friendship circle responsibility, it’s a kitchen table responsibility, it’s work we’ll do with our colleagues, with our children. It is such an opportunity to really critically look at what you know, what symbols hold in terms of value systems and cultural understanding.”

Stein, whose own hands helped build the pole, now views it as a learning opportunity for her students and the community.

“Our whole country needs healing, and this is healing it,” she said. “We have to go back and say, ‘what did we do [and] was that right?’”

Related:

Art as reconciliation: Ymir artist hosting BC Culture Days event

B.C. or Ontario? Residential school survivors fight move of court battle

@tyler_harper | tyler.harper@nelsonstar.com

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Tyler Harper

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