Land of the Namgis

Trip Start Sep 23, 2009
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Trip End Oct 09, 2009


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Flag of Canada  , British Columbia,
Monday, September 28, 2009

The weather grew ominous as we returned to Campbell River by ferry, then took the road north. It was densely forested, and deserted apart from the occasional logging truck.   From the little town of Port McNeil, we boarded a ferry to our next destination: Alert Bay, on Cormorant Island. Alert Bay is an isolated community, largely dependent on fishing.  A large percentage of the locals are First Nations, of the Kwakwaka'wakw.  It was supposed to be a good place to find out more about native culture, which caught my interest. We arrived as the watery sun was subsumed by the clouds, and in the last light we explored the township on the water, and the totems at the graveyard.  Once, these totems would have stood proud and tall in front of a great house.  Their presence in the graveyard was poignant.  When a totem falls, it is not restored.  It is allowed to return to the earth where it came from.  The gravestones stood on, seeming indestructible.  The great houses are long gone.  For many years, native cultures were suppressed.  There is a movement now to revive old customs and practices.  The struggle is to keep old ways and languages from falling, and to find out how to fit tradition into the modern world.

We wandered over to the U'mista cultural centre.  It was all locked up, closed for the day, but an old man was there, watching his grandchildren playing.  He was a carver, one of the Kwakwaka'wakw people, and he invited us down to his workshop.  He had just finished a commission for two bentwood boxes.  The colours were bright and fresh, the carving incredibly precise.  The boxes were destined to go to Sweden, to adorn somebody's living room.  The carver had been trained as a young man.  Now he wanted to take an apprentice, and pass his knowledge and skills on.  But the young people did not seem interested, he could not find anyone to teach.  Perhaps one day the grandchildren will want to learn.  Two new totems lay, half complete, outside, to be finished and erected in the town a month later.  The future remains in the mists.  I thought back to the graveyard, and to Bill Reid's rotunda.  Dust to dust?  Life from the ashes?  If the spirit is strong enough, it can survive.
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