In 1916, a Union Steamboat booklet describing the approach to Alert Bay stated, “As we rounded the point into the Bay, the whole shoreline lay extended before us with spectacular effect… In the foreground were the fishing boats of the natives. Towering above all stood the famous Totem Poles. To my belief there’s no finer collection on the whole coast.”
One century later, we moored SV Beyond the Stars among Alert Bay’s fishing fleet and equally relished the towering totems. We tied up between two fishboats on the marina docks’ very last finger. As I strode along the lengthy wharf to register with the harbourmaster, I met Brian Wadhams, who was readying his boat for another fishing trip.
“I’ve caught more than 200 salmon in the last few days,” he said.
“That’s a lot of salmon,” I replied. “Can you keep all of that?”
“It’s food fishing and I share with about 800 relatives,” he said, smiling. “We smoke, can and freeze them for winter sustenance.”
Sharing is part of First Nation customs. W. A. Wastell, one of the founders of Telegraph Cove and a long-term resident of Alert Bay, portrayed aboriginal largesse in his early 20th century memoirs this way, “His charity to his fellow man knew no bounds. He would take in and feed all his house would hold, and the older incapacitated people were provided for.”
Alert Bay is located on the southwestern edge of Cormorant Island. The names derive from the first naval steamship in B.C., HMS Cormorant, and HMS Alert. Both sailed these waters in the mid-19th century.
Cormorant is a vaguely whale-shaped isle in Johnstone Strait. Left behind by glaciers that scraped the waterways around the isle, it lies about halfway between Telegraph Cove and Port McNeill, between Malcolm and Vancouver islands, and across from the mouth of the Nimpkish River. It was there where the ’Namgis, the First Nation group now inhabiting Alert Bay, had their permanent winter village. Captain Vancouver, in Discovery, stopped by there in July 1792. His journal recorded it was the most interesting settlement he’d visited up to then. After the ’Namgis established themselves in Alert Bay, Emily Carr called round during her 1912 voyage to Alaska and painted a vivid impressionistic canvas depicting big houses, totems and three indigenous women.
Cormorant is a small island, but for millennia, it has served multiple purposes. The ‘Namgis—part of the North Vancouver Island’s Kwakwaka’wakw Nation—used the island as a summer camp and burial ground. After 1881, when Spencer and Huson opened a saltery and later a cannery, the ’Namgis moved to Alert Bay (BC Packers acquired the company in 1902). The men fished; the women worked in the cannery. Communal big houses were constructed. Alert Bay became a hub for commerce and transportation, and home to shops, a hospital, churches, a sawmill and residential school. One shore-side sign describes how, from the 1950s through the 1970s, Alert Bay was the “unofficial capital of North coastal fishing.” Nearly 1,000 boats were registered here and both logging and mining added to the cash being earned in the region. On weekends, people flocked to town for supplies and entertainment, with some exuberant workers dropping thousands of dollars in the bars. The town boasted four churches, a bowling alley and two theatres. Today, with shrunken fishing, mining and logging, it’s a much calmer place.
According to Alert Bay’s Chief Administrative Officer Justin Beadle, Cormorant Island is comprised of four political jurisdictions: ‘Namgis First Nation, Village of Alert Bay, Whe-la-la-u Area Council, and Regional District of Mount Waddington. The total population is about 950 with 680 First Nation (72 percent) and 270 Euro/other descendants (28 percent).
At the top of the dock, guarded by its scarlet government-dock railings, I visited the attractive harbour office, which offers showers, laundry and some tourist information. Harbourmaster Stephen Bruce told me he was just one month into his job. He’s also a master carver. Bruce carved one of the best-known totems in the nearby cemetery; it’s the graveyard’s boundary marker showing a man and a halibut. He also flipped through his smart-phone photos showing a flock of other carvings.
“Why did you take the harbourmaster job, Stephen?” I asked him. “Your sculptures are outstanding.”
“I got tired of chasing commissions,” he said. “I needed to find a steady day job.”
“Will you still carve?”
“Only in my spare time.”
The BC Ferries’ dock is next to the harbour office and immediately provides visitors with an introduction to the vibrant First Nation culture celebrated in this small community. Carved orcas and a bear head are supported by two hefty posts and a sign, “Gilakas’la” or “Welcome.” Across the street, more wooden poles support a thunderbird carving as well as an orca announcing Alert Bay is “Home of the Killer Whale” in the traditional colours of red, green and black. Turning left onto Front Street, a boardwalk on pilings leads to a bustling gallery/shop with the name “Culture Shock.” It too is supported by pilings streaked by the tides.
The building has been there since 1935 and once served as a pool hall. The store is open year-round and a small alcove prepares coffees and espressos for the many visitors who shop for jewelry, clothing, mother-of-pearl trinkets and woven cedar objects. Today, following in their grandparents’ footsteps, three Cranmer sisters—Barb, Donna and Andrea—operate the emporium. Barb is an entrepreneur and had just created a cultural tour that buses people around the village to see the sights ($25).
“It’s quite a long walk around our community and I noticed some of our older visitors becoming too weary,” she said. “The bus covers about half of the island. Half-way, they stop here to have a coffee and a sweet, then see the rest.”
We hopped on the bus tour, called Step into our World, and drove toward the graveyard packed with memorial poles, some decorated with new, dazzling colours, others ashen, losing their paint to age, wind, sun and salt. Several monuments lie prone in the grass. Some families leave them on the ground, believing the decay is part of the natural life cycle. Others replace or repaint their poles. For the ’Namgis, it’s a sacred place and they prohibit visitors from walking across the grass. I was taken by this spiritual space, where cultural art and deeply felt traditions commemorate those who lived before.
After progressing through residential areas, we stopped at the Big House, where the ’Namgis still conduct potlatches. These aren’t open to the public but if you’d like to see the interior of this 1,200-person space with its soaring beams, you can attend the T’sasala Cultural Group’s traditional songs and dances. Their hour-long performances take place on Thursday, Friday, and Saturdays in July and August. We were there on different days so didn’t experience the presentation, but we did see the world’s tallest totem—53.75 metres supported by guy wires—located next to the Big House. We also enjoyed picking the fruit off a cluster of plentiful blackberry canes in front.
Nearby, a plaque commemorates the location of red-brick St. Michael’s Residential School, run by the Anglican Church from 1929-1974. As the largest structure in Alert Bay, it loomed over the village and housed about 200 indigenous children at a time, with the goal of anglicising them. The kids were forbidden to speak their native languages and rarely saw their families. The plaque reveals the school was mostly self-sufficient, with students providing labour in the gardens, sewing room and dairy. After the school closed down, it crumbled into disrepair and was taken down piece-by-piece in 2015, with some of its former residents and their families participating in a healing ceremony. Only a grassy field remains.
After returning to Culture Shock, we sat on the terrace with Arthur Dick, who was taking a break from his duties at the store. He talked with all the visitors quaffing coffee and answered questions about his heritage.
“My great grandfather was the first aboriginal to get a commercial fishing licence in 1921,” he said. “We were wealthy, living off the sea.”
Barb Cranmer, a renowned filmmaker, was also on hand. “I’m a story teller through film,” she said. “I give voice to our stories and heritage. After all the trauma and oppression, we can stand on our feet and share our rich culture. The films allow us to celebrate what we are today, with an emphasis on celebrate.” She has won many awards for her work, which she writes, directs and produces. Included are films on the intricate fishing traditions of indigenous peoples, and a tale about the lives of six Pacific coast weavers. She featured iconic artist Mungo Martin in a short film: A Slender Thread/The Legacy. Her latest documentary, Our Voices, Our Stories, records the demolition of the St. Michael’s Residential School, chronicling both the sadness of its past and the gladness of its vanishing.
The U’mista Cultural Centre is justly renowned for its superb collection of potlatch artifacts, carvings, masks, weavings, regalia and coppers. A glass wall carries the legend, When one’s heart is glad, he gives away gifts . . . The potlatch was given to us to be our way of expressing joy. Potlatches were elaborate gift-giving feasts that marked important social events like marriage, births and funerals. But because government officials and clerics believed these festivals were anti-Christian and wasteful, potlatches were outlawed between 1884-1951. In 1921, Alert Bay’s Daniel Cranmer hosted the last great potlatch and broke the law. Ceremonial items were confiscated and disappeared into private collections and museums. After the potlatch prohibition was repealed, the community began a lengthy campaign to recover its regalia.
Their persistence paid off. Against adzed vertical cedar planks, an astonishing collection of colourful raven masks, duck headdresses, a doubled-headed serpent, man-eater birds, dancing figures, a jacket adorned with feathers and wispy down, strings of woven and braided cedar, mourning masks, and masks depicting ancient stories of good and bad fortune are showcased. I lingered, reading the explanations for each item, its ceremonial function or its portrayal of an old fable carved in wood.
According to the centre’s website, the term “U’mista” is apt. “In earlier days,” it reads, “people were sometimes taken captive by raiding parties. When they returned to their homes, either through payment of ransom or by a raid, they were said to have u’mista. The return of our treasures from distant museums is a form of u’mista.”
During the summer, the centre offers educational programs. I was fortunate to meet Corrine Hunt, born in Alert Bay, and a member of the artistic Hunt family. She creates unique jewelry, furniture and carvings, and was the co-designer of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic medals. At U’mista, she explained the intricacies of Chilkat weaving and then presented a workshop on drawing the ovoid, the most dominant shape in B.C. aboriginal art. A group of us tried to draw an ovoid in one continuous line. It wasn’t easy.
As I walked back to the marina, I passed by the ‘Namgis First Nation breakwater, the endless triangles of its wooden struts mirrored in the tranquil waters. The round, red fishboat fenders contrasted sharply. The ‘Namgis net loft still juts into the bay supported by slender creosoted pilings and topped by a rusty corrugated roof. Although less busy than in the past, fisher folk still gather here to mend nets and socialize.
I again passed the Culture Shock store. Barb Cranmer was behind the counter.
“I saw one of your films playing at the U’mista Centre,” I said. “And I’m stopping by to say farewell.”
“We don’t have a word for goodbye,” said Barb. “But I will say Halakasla—my breath goes with you.”