The Totem Poles of Alert Bay
Off the Northern Coast of Vancouver Island, and a ferry ride away from Port McNeill, lies a small island called Cormorant in the Queen Charlotte Strait. Home to the Kwakwaka‘wakw village of Alert Bay, in the ‘Namgis (Nimpkish) territory, this island is living history. At once traditional and contemporary, Alert Bay is home to an active population of ‘Namgis, and it’s these welcoming people who illuminate the island for visitors. From the tourism info centre, one is greeted enthusiastically and with a plan — depending on how much time you have on the island, a map and itinerary is offered for self-guided exploration.
We started at the U’mista Cultural Centre, a museum and heritage stop with the largest collection of Potlatch memorabilia in the world. Many of these items were repatriated from overseas after Canada’s prohibition, which forbade the hosting of Potlatch and other essential traditional ceremonies, was lifted. They are still collecting, still healing and still looking to reconnect a fractured past. By welcoming tourism in a big way, Alert Bay is a beacon for those interested in our West Coast history, both the beauty and the brutal.
From U’mista, we visited the Big House, off limits to visitors as it’s still in use today. Standing before the great facade was impressive enough, our imaginations ran wild thinking of the experiences contained within. Next to the Big House stands the “World’s Tallest Totem Pole“, at 173 feet tall. Beyond that is current ‘Namgis burial ground, and down the road and over the hill is the Anglican graveyard, a place with many mixed symbols and dedications. Private totem poles and arches are found throughout the island, you can see them all in one day as the island is just 12km around the edge.
The highlight was the original ‘Namgis burial grounds. On the edge of the ocean, totems stand tall and some stand crooked. They face the sea and remain alert, protecting and honouring those buried below. As an outsider, we weren’t able to get close, rather taking our photos from the road. Still, the energy can be felt on this island and in this place. While the skies opened up and the mist set in, it was time to take the ferry back to Port McNeill, thoughts of times past and times anew occupying our minds on the slow float across the sea.
Alert Bay, Cormorant Island, BC.
<click on the first image to view large – recommended!>