Century-old totem pole becomes inspiration for using the past to fix the future: UNM Newsroom

Anthropologists go back in time to repair relationship over prominent indigenous object

In the courtyard of UNM’s Maxwell Museum, a totem pole stood for many decades, weathered by seasons and avian inhabitants. Its beauty and physical condition faded by age, was one concern for university anthropologists—the other, was trying to understand its origins.

Recently, a partnership within the Anthropology Department consisting of Les Field, department chair, Lea S. McChesney, director of the Alfonso Ortiz Center for Intercultural Studies, Dave Phillips, director of the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, and Blaire Topash-Caldwell, an Ethnology graduate student—all of whom have been involved with other Museum colleagues on the totem pole project—helped shed some light on unanswered questions.

According to the group, “In the 21st Century, anthropology museums must constantly rethink their relationships with communities they portray and from which their collections originate. The key part of the new approach goes to a central question for anthropology museums today: Who owns and controls a people’s heritage? In the case of the totem pole, the answer is now clear—the Smith Family and the Tlowitsis Nation.”

The Smith Family Totem Pole has been in the University’s care for over 70 years. There have been many stories about how the pole originated on campus. Through recent efforts of the Alfonso Ortiz Center, the Maxwell Museum, and UNM’s Anthropology Department, a clearer understanding of its past has emerged.

“The stories swirling around the totem pole have obscured the truth,” said the group. “We now know that the pole originated in 1907 on Turnour Island, British Columbia. Chief Smith Sewid of the Tlowitsis Nation commissioned a now-famous artist, Charlie Yakuglas James, to carve the pole.”

“Parts of the story are still as murky as the water of Turnour Island, however, it’s clear that UNM was complicit in the taking of an…

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