RISING A TRIUMPHANT 41 FEET INSIDE THE HIBBEN CENTER on the University of New Mexico’s Albuquerque campus, the Smith Family Totem Pole traveled a long and controversial route from the Tlowitsis Nation in British Columbia. This much is all but certain: Frank Hibben stole it. In 1941, the young anthropology professor claimed he had purchased the elaborately carved and painted 1907 ceremonial piece for $200.
Decades later, officials at UNM’s Maxwell Museum of Anthropology say he likely bought a different one to practice moving it, by sea and by rail, then spirited away this one-ton version, carved for the Tlowitsis chief, when tribespeople were away. For years, it stood in front of Scholes Hall, subject to the desert’s elements. In 2012, the university apologized to the tribe, worked out a long-term loan, and hired master carvers Tom Hunt Jr. and Bertram Smith, descendants of the original maker, to restore it. Their remarkable work was unveiled in 2017. When the tribe does want it back, museum director Carla Sinopoli says, “We’re going to work with them to make a new pole for us.”