UNM officials uncover history behind century old totem pole

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – University of New Mexico researchers say they’ve uncovered the history behind a century-old totem pole that’s been sitting on the campus for decades.

The 40-feet tall, one-ton totem pole sat outside of the Maxwell Museum for decades with its origin unknown. It has now been moved inside where it faced hundreds of hours of restoration.

“This is not something where you can just slap some paint on it. You won’t do that to the Mona Lisa and you won’t do it to this,” David Phillips Jr., Interim Director of Maxwell Museum of Anthropology said.

The extensive restoration process began with a detailed search for information about its past. UNM officials worked for a decade to discover the origin of the totem pole. They learned it originated in British Colombia in 1907 belonging to Chief Smith Sewid of the Tlowitsis Nation.

How did it get here? Phillips Jr. says the totem pole was actually stolen by a professor back in 1941. To do the family and the pole justice, it was moved inside to restore its beauty and physical condition.

“The decision was made that the pole should stay here in part because of its current condition but that it should be restored in a way that the family preferred,” Phillips Jr. said.

Recently the Smith family gave the university their stamp of approval at a blessing ceremony for the totem pole to remain on display in the museum. Museum officials say it can be returned to the family at any time at their request.

It has taken $50,000 to $60,000 to fully restore the totem pole. UNM officials say they’re also working on a replica that will be placed back on the tribe’s land in British Colombia.

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