The Totems of Alert Bay

I took the Greyhound north out of Victoria, for nine hours up the east coast of Vancouver Island to a little harbour called Port McNeill where I hopped onto a ferry for Cormorant Island.

The journey took me all day but I finally arrived in Alert Bay about 12 hours after I left Victoria.  Cormorant Island is the home of the Namgis tribe, who are part of the Kwakwaka' wakw people, whose art work I looked at in the Museum of Anthropology while I was in Vancouver.
My distant island destination
I'm staying at the Seine Boat Inn - a wooden waterfront construction with its feet in the sea.

You listen to the ocean lapping underneath the floor all night and it's very soothing - just like being on a boat. Everything's made of wood, but utterly immaculate and the beds are a glorious, sinking experience - all kept by Colin, who emigrated here from Britain when he was 17 and hasn't felt like going back since.

You can keep an eye out for Orca while you have breakfast.
It's very cosmopolitan here - there are quite a few Americans, the cafe over the street is run by a couple from India, there are several Korean fishermen, Chinese store-keepers and quite a lot of Brits.  But it's the First Nation residents I've come to meet. On my first evening, taking a quick walk along the shoreline to shake the journey out of my legs before I went to bed, I came across an old cemetery with fallen totems.

The following day someone explained to me that they don't maintain these memorials.  They believe in a natural cycle of life, decay and death;  everything has its allotted time, so when the totems fall they're allowed to rot back into the ground.

There's a museum now in Alert Bay -called U'mista, which means 'that which was given back'.  The museum is built in the style of the traditional 'Big House'.

And the museum contains all the precious objects and ceremonial regalia that was taken away from the Namgis at the beginning of the twentieth century, when their ceremonies and celebrations were forbidden.  Most of it went to museums, or to private collectors, and a surprising amount (given how tightly they hold on to their acquisitions) has now been returned.  I was allowed to photograph the mask below, but the others are too sacred.

The most important ceremony for First Nation people was the Potlatch - a big party to celebrate a community event, but which also passed on important cultural knowledge, stories, songs, and tribal history to younger generations - often in the form of dancing with masks and robes, dancers acting out the traditional legends.  It was also part of the Potlatch for the family to give away personal wealth to the guests in the form of gifts.  This is how the tradition was summed up by one of the tribal elders.

"When one's heart is glad, he gives away gifts.  It was given to us by our Creator, to be our way of doing things, to be our way of rejoicing, we who are Indian.  The Potlatch was given to us to be our way of expressing joy!"  [Grandmother Agnes Alfred, community leader, Alert Bay]

Needless to say, the colonial authorities weren't happy with this and Potlatches were banned - participants being liable to imprisonment.  All the ceremonial regalia, robes and masks, dishes, banners and tribal emblems, was taken off to go to museums or to be sold to private collectors.

After I'd been to the museum - I went up to the top of the hill to see the tallest totem pole in the world and the Namgis' Big House, where they celebrate their contemporary Potlatches.  The tallest totem pole proved too tall to photograph!

The Chief's house has a housepole outside with his lineage on it. Part of it is an Orca with a man on its back.

Alert Bay is a strange little place, sitting astride two communities. At the end of May it's still not summer here and many places were still closed for winter.  Some also had For Sale signs outside.
A fishing boat leaving harbour early
It has the feeling of a place on the edge of something.  There's very little money here now - the days of the 'million dollar catch' are gone and the fishing is thin, but it's either that or logging and most people divide their time between the two.

A big fish cannery that was built along the shore has long since fallen into the sea, and there are notices all along the harbour warning not to catch mussels, clams or oysters since they're all contaminated with 'Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning'.  This comes from algal blooms in the Pacific, which used to be rare, but have become more frequent.

Emily Carr once came here to paint the totems that lined the bay and the painted war canoes pulled up on the shore.
Emily Carr: 'War Canoes at Alert Bay'
Now there are fewer totems, but I did spot one canoe poking its nose out of a shed, being repainted for summer.


Popular Posts