As my ferry cuts through the choppy waters of Broughton Strait toward tiny Cormorant Island and the village of Alert Bay, I snap postcard shots of snow-dusted mountains on nearby Vancouver Island. A pod of orca whales skims across the frigid ocean, while bald eagles as plentiful as pigeons float through the ominous clouds above. However, I haven’t travelled here to explore this area’s wondrous natural attractions. I’ve come to learn more about its dramatic First Nations culture and history.
As we approach the crescent-shaped island, I catch my first glimpse of Alert Bay. Brightly painted wooden buildings along the shore provide warm contrast to the stark natural surroundings. A gate adorned with native carvings greets visitors with the ‘Namgis word for welcome: Gilakas’la.
For a community with fewer than 1,500 residents, Alert Bay is a lively place. On the main road, a brawny man grunts over a sculpture he carves from a block of wood. Two words emblazoned across his t-shirt proclaim what Alert Bay is all about: Native Pride.
My first stop is the Alert Bay Library/Museum, whose walls are covered with brilliant native artifacts and historical photographs. With assistance from helpful staff, I navigate the countless manuscripts and develop an understanding of Alert Bay’s long, and sometimes sad, history.
The musty pages reveal that for millennia this region has been home to the proud ‘Namgis people, who thrived on the bounty provided by the surrounding forests and waterways. All that changed in 1792 when some pale-skinned men on a tall wooden boat dropped anchor nearby. That ship was the H.M.S. *Discovery*; its captain was George Vancouver.
Relations with the newcomers were cordial, at first. Opportunistic European traders bartered for timber, coal, whales and fish, while they hunted a teeming otter population to near extinction.
In the 1870s, some entrepreneurs leased Cormorant Island from the federal government and opened a salmon saltery. A settlement was constructed and, by the 1890s, Alert Bay was the central coast’s largest commercial fishing centre. Canneries employed First Nations women while the fisheries hired native men. The new settlers and the locals remained on good terms for a while, but the aboriginal workers practice of their ancient potlatch rituals would soon cost them dearly.
I delve into this tragic phase of Alert Bay’s past at the nearby U’mista Cultural Centre. Archeologists say the wealth of a culture can be determined by the art it produces. Surrounded by exquisitely carved masks and other invaluable artifacts on display inside the cool, cedar-scented building, I realize the people who created these treasures were rich beyond measure.
These are symbols of the potlatch, a ceremony held to commemorate important occasions such as the naming of children, marriage and the mourning of the dead. Dancers in vibrant masks perform elaborate rituals, accompanied by one or more feasts. The host bestows gifts on guests; the word potlatch means literally “to give.” Today’s potlatches last up to 24 hours, but in the past they could continue for weeks.
Documents in the centre tell how settlers were initially tolerant of the potlatch, but missionaries and government agents later rejected the ceremony as “uncivilized.” Pressure mounted to ban the ceremony. The federal government passed a vaguely worded law to that effect in 1884, but it was seldom enforced. They later revised the law and after a large potlatch at nearby Village Island in 1921, police arrested 45 people. The authorities told the participants they would receive suspended sentences if they gave up their masks and regalia. Twenty refused and served prison sentences, but others acquiesced and surrendered their artifacts.
William Halliday, the Indian Agent in Alert Bay, had all potlatch regalia shipped to Ottawa, an act that tore the heart out of the native community. The government divided the artifacts between various museums, while a few were sold to private collectors. Some were acquired by Duncan Campbell Scott, Superintendent General of Indian Affairs. It seems supremely ironic that high-ranking government officials coveted potlatch regalia while they banned the ceremony itself.
For years, native leaders fought to have their ceremonial objects returned. Finally, in the 1970s, the National Museums Corporation agreed to give back part of the collection provided that the First Nations communities build museums in Alert Bay and nearby Cape Mudge. On November 1, 1980, the U’mista Cultural Centre opened in Alert Bay. In that centre, DVD footage depicts the emotional opening ceremonies, when native elders who witnessed the confiscation of their treasures 60 years earlier were moved to tears.
I enter the display area from the right, as a dancer does at a potlatch. I can only imagine the sense of loss felt by the indigenous community when these superb works of art were taken from them.
The first objects are groups of coppers, pieces of metal hammered into the shape of a shield and decorated with intricate designs. Some are several feet in length. Coppers represent an ancient banking system and increased in value each time they were sold by the chiefs and nobility. In earlier times all feasts and potlatches were financed by the sale of coppers. Today, they symbolize ancient wealth and the license to hold potlatches. Nineteenth century traders would sometimes swap thousands of Hudson’s Bay Company blankets for a single copper. In 1922, the Department of Indian Affairs appraised the entire potlatch collection at $1,495 when they removed it to Ottawa, while the ‘Namgis people valued the coppers alone at over $35,000.
Following the coppers are the masks, many decorated in a swirl of vivid colours. Some represent the raven, bear and wolf, creatures that are sacred to the ‘Namgis. Several headdresses depict the horns and orange beak of the thunderbird. Sent by the creator as the protector of man, this “ruler of the sky” symbolizes family unity and brotherhood. The thunderbird shoots lightning from its eyes and creates thunder by flapping its wings, while its dandruff falls to earth as hail. The killer whale mask contains elaborate hinged parts that simulate the movement of the fins and jaw.
Other masks represent mythical or supernatural creatures. One of the most striking, hamsiwe, the man-eating bird, sports a long hinged beak trimmed with shredded cedar bark. Atlak’im, the forest spirit, comes from a dramatic story about a young boy mistreated by his father who ran away to commit suicide. Attempts at drowning and starvation instead resulted in his self-purification. The sympathetic spirits of the forest then bestowed him with supernatural powers.
Dzunuk’wa, giant, human-like creatures with deep-set eyes and hairy bodies, are the basis of the Sasquatch legend. In most accounts, dzunuk’wa is female. She is often used to discipline children, who are told that if they wander from the village, she will carry them to her mountain home and devour them.
The spiritual energy here is palpable. I half expect these masks to start dancing before me.
After leaving the cultural centre, I visit the ‘Namgis Burial Grounds, one of the few places on the B.C. coast where undisturbed totem poles are found on their original site. Others have been gathered elsewhere and placed here. A sign asks visitors to stay off the sacred grounds, but I can easily view the poles from a nearby sidewalk. Some are badly decayed from hundreds of years of exposure; a few have been left to decompose and return to the earth.
Back on the ferry, I catch a final glimpse of Alert Bay. A bald eagle soars above the mist-shrouded town. I understand now that the physical size of a place and the dimensions of its soul don’t necessarily go hand in hand.
IF YOU GO
Alert Bay is nestled on Cormorant Island, a scenic 40-minute ferry ride from Port McNeill on the northeastern coast of Vancouver Island. Port McNeill is an easy four-hour drive north of Nanaimo or six hours from Victoria.
ACCOMODATIONS AND SERVICES:
For a small village, Alert Bay offers a wide range of accommodations, including hotels, inns, bed and breakfasts, cabins and campgrounds. A number of locally owned shops and restaurants that serve delicious home-cooked meals are within walking distance of the ferry terminal. Check out the galleries for some one-of-a-kind First Nation arts and crafts.
THE ALERT BAY BIG HOUSE:
Originally built in 1963, the original structure was lost to fire and rebuilt in 1999. During the summer, the T’sasala Cultural Group proudly performs ancient potlatch rituals in the Big House. These spiritually powerful ceremonies are not to be missed.
FISHING AND WHALE WATCHING:
Alert Bay is recognized as an influential centre of aboriginal culture and for its exceptional native artifacts. However, the surrounding area is equally famous for its world-class fishing and whale watching.
Fishing charters operate year-round from Cormorant Island, Port McNeill and neighbouring communities. Drop a line in the nearby waters of Johnstone Strait or venture northeast into the isolated labyrinth of inlets and islands that make up the Broughton Archipelago Marine Park. Depending on the time of year, chinook, sockeye, pink, coho, and chum salmon are there to be reeled in. Halibut are also available, some as big as 200 lbs.
Nearby Robson Bight Ecological Reserve is home to the world’s largest concentration of killer whales. Each summer, 200 Orcas come here to rub their tummies on the gravel beaches at the mouth of the Tsitika River. Charters can be booked in Alert Bay and many other close-by towns. Also, keep an eye out for giant humpback whales, sea lions, porpoises, and dolphins.
JUNE 2012 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE