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Reflections on Those Who Came Before Us (Blog)

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At times, when I’m cruising Northwest waters and the weather is good and the boat is behaving, my random thoughts turn to the survivalists who once lived here, thoughts evoked by this decorated entry to "Big House" at Alert Bay.

They were the people who erected dwellings along the shore and found sustenance in the forest and the sea. Nature often was generous, but life still must have been difficult, even dangerous, at times. The surprise, for me, is that they had the time, imagination and skill to manufacture tools needed for survival and to create art that is admired, envied and imitated today.


These people survived and flourished along the coast for thousands of years. What’s unfortunate is that so little of their culture survives. But there are clues along the shore and in the forests and in some museums scattered along the coast and easily available to boaters who share curiosity about those people who came here first.

As Europeans were first coming ashore on the eastern coast of North America there were tens of thousands of indigenous people living on the West Coast, from Puget Sound on the south to British Columbia and Alaska in the north. Generally, they were known as Indians. Now, in Canada at least, the descendants of those early folks are described as First Nations People.

Today, there are nearly 4 million people living in British Columbia; almost 200,000 say they are descended from First Nations People.

In those early days their life’s sustenance came only from the sea and forest: Western red cedar, salmon, halibut, shellfish and plants found along the shore. Grubbing in the mud for clams or peeling cedar bark sounds tough for us.

 A generations old totem

A generations old totem

But note that those people had time and energy to create arty and useful stuff, too.

They created masks for ceremonies, made tools from wood and stone. They wove amazingly detailed baskets which were used in everyday life for storage and for carrying liquids, clams and oysters, edible plants and roots. For millennia, they cut and dropped towering cedar trees and from them carved elaborate and meaningful totems and then erected them for a life that would span generations. And, they built shelters of huge cedar planks and seaworthy canoes without any of the tools we would need to do the same. How did they make a structure level? How did builders assemble a square corner? How did canoe builders create a symmetrical hull? How did they lift a carved log without a Cat diesel?

Obviously, they had time and energy to do more than scramble for food.

Story Time

After a day’s cruising we moor the boat at Port McNeill, on the northeast shoulder of Vancouver Island. Next morning we walk a few blocks to the terminal of the B.C. ferry system and board a boat bound for Alert Bay on Cormorant Island. We are going to tour the U’Mista Cultural Centre to see its collection of native art and artifacts. There’s a backstory to tell before arrival and coffee is not served on the ferry, so listen up.

On a December day in 1921 tribal groups gathered at Mamalilaculla on Village Island on Knight Inlet for what we would call a party but which was known as a potlatch. There was feasting, music, dancing and gift giving. Although a traditional event for many generations of the tribal people, potlatches had been illegal under B.C. law since 1884.

It’s unclear if the cops braved winter weather and raided the 1921 Christmas Potlatch or if they heard about it later, but in the end 45 men and women were charged with violation of the province’s Indian Act and many went to jail for several months for participating in what was the last major potlatch on the coast.

Worse, all their ceremonial regalia, including masks, rattles, whistles and the most valuable coppers, an art form based derived from copper sheathing used on ship bottoms, was seized and carried away to museums and private collections.

Several decades ago First Nations People along the coast began campaigning for return of the historically and culturally important items taken from the potlatch. An agreement was reached: seized items would be returned if tribal communities would construct museums at Alert Bay and at Cape Mudge on Quadra Island to house and display the artifacts.

The Nuymymbalees Cultural Museum opened at Yaculta, near Cape Mudge on Quadra Island, in 1979 and the U’Mista Cultural Centre opened in 1980 at Alert Bay. We’re going to visit the U’Mista collection and check out other First Nations features in the community. Later, there’s an easy walk back into the tiny business district for lunch before boarding the ferry back to Port McNeil.

The Alert Bay center is easier to reach than the museum at Cape Mudge. There is anchorage offshore of Alert Bay and moorage might be found in a small marina catering to fishing boats. For many, the ferry and feet work best.

To reach the Cape Mudge center one needs to rent a car in Campbell River and take a short ferry ride to Quadra Island and drive to the museum near the south end of the island,. Linger for lunch in a tribal-owned restaurant and admire an outdoor assemblage of newer and brightly painted totems. I’ve made the trip twice and am willing to do it a third time.

At U’Mista the permanent exhibit features the ceremonial masks taken by police in 1921. Some are ferocious in appearance, suggesting mythical creatures. Some resemble animals of the artists’ environment. A few show pieces of metal indicating the mask was created after Europeans arrived. Please, no photos the signs say. But you can find some on social media.

Rotating exhibits focus on other elements of life before and after the Europeans arrived: Outside, an array of totems welcome visitors who walk a curving road running along the beach from the terminal to U’Mista. Some are fairly new; others obviously have endured generations of weather and are decaying from the top down, some with grass growing from deep within pockets of rot.

 Totem in yard of Alert Bay Home.

Totem in yard of Alert Bay Home.

The name U’Mista needs an explanation. Like people around the globe, native nations fought and some enslaved prisoners taken in raids or combat. When prisoners or slaves escaped and returned home it was called U’Mista – a returning. The native group that built the center deemed it an appropriate name.

 Music and Art

Up the hill from U’Mista is a community “big house” modeled on traditional buildings of early tribal groups. The entire front is a huge painting/carving featuring the raven and other creatures of the land and sea. New in 1999, it primarily is used for community activities.

On my last visit to the island we walked neighborhood streets and admired totems in many yards while enroute to the “big house.” We entered tat sprawling building through an archway of spread wings, put $15 each in a box, and found a bleacher seat facing an open space possibly large enough for a couple of basketball courts. A fire burned in a shallow pit in the center of the earthen floor and the smoke escaped through a vent in the ceiling. Young men pounding on a hollow log kept time for dancers and singers parading around the fire. You can watch videos of the native dancers and musicians on social media.

The artistry employed in totems, masks, hats, bent wood boxes is highly imaginative and sometimes puzzling. Artists used abstract images depicting eagles, ravens, salmon, whales and other creatures. They loved to put images in what artists call ovoids – rectangles with rounded corners, which at times would be bent around a hat, a box, or stretched along the bow of a canoe. Faces, or simply eyes, may peer at you from the box.

There is other evidence of the native population that spread across the region. When I first visited Mamalilaculla in the early 1980s several totems stood boldly above the shore They probably were there for that last grand potlatch. Today, all have fallen and the traces remaining are hidden by vegetation that has grown around them. Bears may be found on the island, making visits risky. Anchorage is possible nearby.

At Mound Island, a few miles southwest of Mamalilaculla, a row of rectangular depressions - obviously man-made excavations- indicate that a village of houses once stood just above the beach there. The buildings faded away long ago and trees now rise from the depressions. The island’s shoreline is rocky, except in an area directly below the village site. Some believe that area was cleared by natives and then covered with the shells of clams harvested nearby creating what is called a midden. Today, it’s a nice landing site for yacht tenders and kayakers who overnight on the island. Anchoring on the south side of the island is okay in decent weather.

Some miles north, at Echo Bay on Gilford Island, a man named Billy Proctor lives in a house just above the shoreline. A logger, fisherman, historian and environmentalist, he’s lived in the area all of his 80 years. On a recent visit we talked about the native groups that once flourished in the area and he said that in excavating for a new home near the shore many years ago he found a series of evenly spaced circular depressions in the earth. He thought they were marks left by the supporting columns for a large native building.

What happened to the building? Billy thinks some natural catastrophe swept it away and possibly took many lives.

There is no doubt that a horrific 9.0 earthquake occurred offshore of Vancouver Island at 9pm January 27, 1700 and that a huge tsunami swept the coastline. The timing of the quake was determined by studying Japanese records of the tsunami that struck that nation.

Along the mainland the coastline settled several feet and scientists have found forests that died after inundation by sea water. Native settlements also would have been flooded and, perhaps, structural evidence washed away. With no warning people living along the shore may have perished

Native folklore includes stories about a giant bird – a thunderbird – capturing and lifting a gigantic whale from the ocean and then dropping it on the land and causing a great shaking. That would have been January 27, 1700.

I’m out of time, having offered only a tidbit. More, much more, can be found about original occupants of this land in museums and cultural centers from Victoria north to nearly every port in Southeast Alaska.