The journey of the ancestral pole that once stood outside of the Milwaukee Public Museum
For this Bubbler Talk, question asker Dan Currier of Whitewater wants to know about a past iconic figure of Milwaukee:
“Where did the totem pole that stood in front the old and the new Milwaukee Public Museum come from?”Bubbler Talk question asker Dan Currier
When Currier was a kid, he used to walk from Milwaukee’s near south side downtown to the museum. Seeing the pole outside of the museum, sparked an interest in totem poles for him.
“Fortunately, in my adult life I’ve been able to travel and I’ve been able to go to the Pacific Northwest and see totem poles there in British Columbia, Washington state and other parts of the pacific Northwest,” Currier says.
To find out more about the journey of the ancestral pole, I got in touch with Dawn Scher Thomae, the curator of anthropology collections at the Milwaukee Public Museum (MPM). A lot of her work is North American Indian focused.
The pole was installed in front of the MPM’s original location, what is now the Central Library building, in 1922. But, the pole’s history extends much further back than that.
Scher Thomae wants to make clear that the pole was not created to be put in front of the museum.
The pole’s story begins in Canada — specifically Haida Gwaii, which means “Islands of the Haida people,” in British Columbia.
Scher Thomae believes the ancestral, or mortuary, pole was created in the mid-19th century in honor of a Haida village chief’s wife’s ancestors. The chief’s name was Chief Sil kíñans, which means “property making a noise like birds” in English.
“It was dedicated likely during a potlatch, which is a huge ceremony with hundreds of people and gift giving, and … this dedication goes on for many days,” she explains.
Standing at 41 feet tall, the pole includes carved figures — such as a raven, a moon, a seated figure, a frog, a beaver and possibly a chief dance hat.
Scher Thomae notes that poles are read from top to bottom, and there’s 10 to 12 icons on this pole that have been interpreted differently throughout its history. The stylized carvings are not literal, she explains, but instead represent different aspects of a journey and the stories behind the occasion for which it was carved.
So how did this Haida ancestral pole come to stand in front of the MPM? Well, it was actually bound for England first when the University of Cambridge wanted a pole for their Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology around 1913. The task was given to botanist and ethnographic researcher C.F. Newcombe, who lived in British Columbia.
According to Scher Thomae, Yan, the Haida village where the pole was taken from, had been abandoned for about 50 years because of the smallpox epidemic.
“So it had been abandoned, which is no excuse seriously for removing this poll ever. But Newcombe, you know, saw an opportunity and removed it,” she says.
"While it was a different time in our history, we would never even consider removing this now."Milwaukee Public Museum Curator Dawn Scher Thomae
Then World War I broke out. And, the Cambridge curator Baron Anatole von Hügel was German, so he wasn’t allowed to keep his post and was under surveillance. So now Newcombe had an ancestral pole with nowhere to send it, and he ended up taking it back to his home.
This is where the Milwaukee Public Museum comes into play.
Samuel Barrett became MPM’s first curator of anthropology in 1909. While he was in British Columbia doing research right before the war, he talked about the pole with Newcombe. Barrett couldn’t take the pole for the museum at the time, but when he became the director in 1921, he went back to Newcombe to inquire about it.
“He thought it would be really great, you know, to put it outside of our museum. So he brought it here in four sections. They unfortunately had to chop it into pieces. And so it came here in June 1921,” says Scher Thomae.
The raven at the very top of the pole had to be recarved by a Haida carver before it left British Columbia because it had been damaged during transport. Scher Thomae points out that this may or may not have been a copy of what originally topped the piece, but it's likely that Barrett wanted a complete pole. The ancestral pole was reerected, repainted and reinforced when it was put up in front of the museum library in 1922.
“There was a huge amount of controversy in our community about it,” she adds.
However, the controversy surrounding the ancestral pole had little to do with its removal from its ancestral homeland.
Firstly, it was considered a pagan symbol by the religious sector. Others simply didn’t like the look of it.
“They’re like this is the ugliest thing we've seen! No one thought of it really as like this really artistic creation or this historical piece showing the amazing history and, you know, and it's kind of a lineage, right, a representation of these people. And they called it hideous, and they call it like, you know, all sorts of things. And some people said that looks phallic and obscene. … But Dr. Barrett, he stood strong [and justified its presence since he was focused on trying to bring the world to Milwaukee,]” she says.
Scher Thomae notes a few voices at the time of installation said the ancestral pole was stolen and was considered desecration, but none of these complaints came from Indigenous voices according to records taken at the time.
“So, Barrett actually went back to Newcombe and to allay any fears, he made him sign an actual affidavit saying that how it was collected and that the village was abandoned. But even though there was no one living there, it was theft,” says Scher Thomae.
Not only was it theft, but ancestral poles are meant to fall and decompose back into the earth. Over the years, it was stabilized with things like concrete and infusions, sealing and repainting.
“To me, to read through [the documentation] was heartrendering. ... It’s like trying to keep, you know, someone on life support for longer than they should be and not giving them the respectful passage time that they should."Milwaukee Public Museum Curator Dawn Scher Thomae
The ancestral pole underwent more of this through the decades and was moved in 1963 to where the museum is now located on W. Wells St.
In 1972, the local Native community protested the repainting of the pole by non-Indigenous painters.
“With the painting of this pole, which they believed was, and truly and rightfully so, a very iconic and sacred symbol … the fact that people were just choosing colors willy-nilly and just not giving it the reverence it deserved,” Scher Thomae notes.
The painting of the ancestral pole was also embedded in other concerns the Indigenous community had about the Milwaukee Public Museum — from hiring practices, ancestral remains on display at the time that were quickly removed after the protest, and rectifying the use of the pole’s long-time community nickname “Ignatz."
"Ignatz" was an early nickname given to the pole by someone in the community after it was installed at the library building. Scher Thomae says she couldn’t track who gave it the nickname, and doesn’t know what it means or refers to. The museum, both publicly and in their records, never called it this.
The ancestral pole remained in front of the museum until it was taken down in seven pieces in 1980, ultimately due to deterioration and safety concerns.
Scher Thomae says that during this time, many discussions were had about the possibility of having a new pole made for the museum.
“People were questioning what's the reason just to do it? Like what is the purpose that we would have a new one or recreate it? … Then there was cost and time and finding a Haida carver and a lot of carvers don't want to duplicate it exactly because it's not their story, either. … And so it was just decided that it should just rest comfortably,” she explains.
Scher Thomae says that the Canadian Haida have been aware that MPM has had this pole. She has personally been working with Tlingit and Haida tribes from Alaska over the years to review the MPM’s collection of their cultural material and to provide more information about the ancestral pole.
Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA), Indigenous peoples can request items back from museums that receive federal funding. However, because the ancestral pole was taken from Canada, the law doesn’t apply here.
Scher Thomae says that in the meantime, the pole is resting in stasis at the museum and they will continue to care for it.
“Truly we do care for these things to the best of our ability, and we want to make sure that they are protected," she says. "And I actually hope to … continue [the discussion with the First Nations group about what they would like to do about the next steps in its journey]."
Editor's note: This story was originally published February 11, 2022.
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