The first thing to hit your eyes are the totem poles. The monoliths dominate the view, grabbing your attention as you alight from the ferry in Alert Bay, off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.
Alert Bay is on Cormorant Island, about 45 minutes by boat from Port McNeill, and perhaps the ideal starting point for learning about the rich variety of First Nations history and culture in this corner of British Columbia.
U’mista Cultural Centre is here, a renowned cultural center and museum dedicated to First Nations culture and one of the province’s longest-operating such facility. It’s most noted for a collection of potlatch masks that were taken by collectors before 1920 and returned from other museums after U’mista was completed in 1980 with proper facilities to house these items. A sister museum on Quadra Island is called the Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre.
U’mista translates to “return of something important.” Contemplating the potlatch items, one realizes just how apt a name it is. A short movie sets the stage, explaining how every aspect of tribal life is depicted through ritual and ceremony. The exhibits of masks and other items help explain in detail how potlatches enable the distribution of goods and wealth.
Trevor Isaac, Namgis from the Nimkish River, leads us through the exhibit. Nimpkish, the anglicized name for the Namgis, is a band under the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation, and Alert Bay falls within their territory. He explains that various tribes had long used these shores as a resting place before contact.
But in the late 1800s, he said, “We were enticed to move to Alert Bay from the main island. They started a fish saltery on the island, and with that came new wealth. That turned into a fish cannery, and that’s when it started to get larger. Other tribes moved here as well.”
Isaac gave some insight into the complexity and strict ranking system of the various tribes.
“The more you potlatch, the higher your status,” he explained. “If you’re a tribe that potlatches more than others, your tribe will gain status. The tribe also breaks down into clans. One tribe might have five clans, which are their own tribe in their own right, but collectively they come together as one. It’s very complex in every aspect.”
In 1884 the Canadian government made it a misdemeanor to take part in a potlatch and threatened those who did so with imprisonment, calling it an “immoral and heathen practice” in a law that remained on the books until 1951.
Trevor estimated there were about 120 items in the potlatch collection. The first to be returned to U’mista came from the National Museum of Man. This was followed by pieces from the Royal Ontario Museum and the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the American Indian.
U’mista sits next to a huge old brick and concrete building that once housed one of the country’s infamous boarding schools. It was built in 1929, operated by the Anglican Church, and large enough to house 200 youngsters.
Like other such schools throughout North America, it aimed to take the Native out of Native youngsters, prohibiting them from speaking their own languages or practicing their own culture, and separating them from their families. Closed down in 1974, it remains as a symbol of bygone, more ignorant days. Demolition is planned, pending funding and authorization.
Visitors should visit the totems at the ‘Namgis Burial Grounds in the center of Alert Bay. Entry to the grounds is prohibited out of respect, but the totems are clearly visible from the nearby roadway. As time passes some have faded or fallen over, but it fits with the Namgis belief that nothing lasts forever and that when it falls it’s merely time to replace, it, since it has served its purpose. The figures on the poles hold great significance to the family who erected each one. Adorned with family crests, sometimes with hidden meanings, the poles are very personalized.
At a newer, and private, cemetery Dorothy Svanvik explained the carving that her father and cousins had done on a totem pole for her grandparents.
“My grandpa used to play the saxophone and piano, so you can see the musical notes on there, the little piano and on the side is a saxophone,” she said. A massive thunderbird topped the pole.
The world’s tallest totem pole, 173 feet, stands above the village near the traditional Big House, which to this day is used primarily for potlatches. All these spots are walking distance from the dock.
Port Hardy and Port McNeill are the two primary towns on the northern end of Vancouver Island. Each is chock full of numerous restaurants and places to stay, as is Alert Bay. The Port Hardy Museum is noteworthy for its collection of artifacts from an archeological excavation at Bear Cove near Fort Rupert, between the towns of Port Hardy and Port McNeill. These artifacts date back to the earliest known habitation on Vancouver Island—about 5850 B.C., nearly 8,000 years ago.
Fort Rupert is still home to the Kwakiutl Indian Band, part of the Kwakwaka’wakw. It was here that a steamship, the S.S. Beaver of the Hudson's Bay Company, arrived in 1836. Finding coal deposits, the seafarers returned 12 years later to establish a fortified trading post. A small portion of that structure still remains, and petroglyphs line the beach in front of the trading post site. Time and water have eroded these to the point that they’re becoming difficult to find without a local guide.
Totem poles are visible throughout the communities. One of the largest concentrations is at the burial site across from Kwakiutl Tribal buildings in Fort Rupert.
Cluxewe Resort is a Kwakiutl business just north of Port McNeill. A huge campground, it is situated between the ocean waters of Broughton Strait and the Cluxewe River estuary and provides visitors an option other than motels. Situated between the estuary and sea, it provides good opportunities for wildlife viewing in addition to 147 beautiful camping sites amid the trees. A dozen cabins are for rent, fronting on the beach and overlooking the ocean, plus a café and picnic pavilion for special events.
The small community of Tahsis is farther south and on the western side of Vancouver Island. Today’s aboriginal presence is small, but at one time this was a primary early wintering area for First Nations people. Captain James Cook landed near here, in Nootka Sound, in 1778, although his arrival was likely pre-dated by a Spanish navigator in 1775.
The history of those early years goes back long before either the Lewis and Clark expedition reached the west coast, or David Thompson crossed Canada to the coast. It was tied largely to the fur trade that European seamen conducted with aboriginal bands all along the coast. The Spanish established a settlement in 1789 in Nootka Sound, naming it Yuquot. Visitors today won’t find much firsthand evidence of early settlement or First Nations activities from that era—it lives on mostly in history books.
Still farther south, midway down the west coast, the town of Tofino is rapidly changing from a small First Nations fishing village into a modern community, but the aboriginal influence is still strongly felt. Gift shops are filled with a variety of First Nations artisanship, and cultural tourism is alive and well. It is home to Best Western’s Tin Wis Resort, owned by Tla-O-Qui-Aht First Nation. A totally modern, very large facility with all the latest accommodations, it also rests on spacious and beautifully landscaped grounds leading down to the beach at Clayoquot Sound, on the Pacific Ocean.