Rich First Nations Culture

Part of the North Island’s Artistic Wealth

Some call Alert Bay on Cormorant Island the last authentic fishing village on BC’s coast. It’s definitely the oldest community on North Vancouver Island and among the prettiest. Time has been almost suspended here. Colourful heritage buildings and old village houses on the waterfront still speak of the early pioneer days when the community was first settled as a salt fishery in 1870. But what is most vivid is the living culture of the Kwakwaka’wakw and ‘Namgis First Nations people who’ve made their homes here for hundreds of years. To them, Alert Bay is “Home of the Killer Whale’’ and their culture is visible throughout the community.

Tourism is growing on Cormorant Island thanks to the cooperative efforts of the Village of Alert Bay, the ‘Namgis First Nation and the U’mista Cultural Centre, whose positive working relationship has helped develop a Cormorant Island tourism economy. The vibrant blending of First Nations and pioneer cultures is a prime reason to visit. On top of that, the natural beauty of Cormorant Island and the Broughton Archipelago is a magnet for visitors seeking access to an unparalleled Northern Pacific wilderness environment.

Alert Bay Totems - Photo: Boomer JerrittThose wishing to discover Cormorant Island’s heady mix of outdoor beauty, ancient First Nations culture and pioneer heritage can take a scenic 45-minute BC Ferries ride to Alert Bay from Port McNeill. From the roadside just outside Alert Bay, elaborate memorial totem poles can be seen marking the sacred ‘Namgis burial grounds. This is one of the few remaining spots in BC where historic totems remain at their original site.

The village’s internationally known U’mista Cultural Centre, incorporated in 1974, is Canada’s longest running First Nations museum and cultural centre. U’Mista is most famous for its superb Potlatch Collection, including masks and artifacts used in traditional Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch ceremonies. Several treasured potlatch artifacts are now on display after being returned to the U’mista in recent decades from the Royal Ontario Museum and the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the American Indian. Another significant mask is on long-term loan from the British Museum. The U’mista Gift Shop features authentic modern-day masks, carvings, paintings and prints of many local Kwakwaka’wakw artists. Collectors will recognize the names of Don Alfred, Kevin Cranmer and Sean Whonnock.

Cultural Tours - Cedar Weaving - Image: Joli White
Cedar Weaving – Image: Joli White

Culture Shock Gallery co-owner Barb Cranmer, along with her sisters Donna and Andrea Cranmer, have taken the First Nations cultural experience a step further with their interactive approach. The gallery offers four unique experiences inviting visitors to “experience ‘Namgis roots’’ firsthand. Visitors can weave a cedar bracelet, travel in a canoe with a ‘Namgis guide, learn to barbecue salmon the traditional way, and participate in storytelling with a village elder, including the legend of Dzunuk’wa, the wild woman of the woods who would put little children in her basket if they didn‘t behave. It’s a familiar tale that Barb Cranmer recalls her own mother telling her and part of the hands-on, interactive experiences that earned Culture Shock Gallery a 2009 Aboriginal Tourism of BC (ATBC) award.

First Nations art is also visible in Port Hardy where many of the downtown buildings have been painted with bright, bold images of killer whales and other significant cultural depictions. At the Port Hardy Museum & Archives, visitors can see 8,000 year old native artifacts, along with changing temporary exhibits, historic photo albums and videos, as well as a replica of a European settler’s cottage, complete down to the antique lace curtains on the windows. In the gift shop, Curator Jane Hutton is proud to point out the museum’s collection of native art and silver jewellery from the Central Coast communities of Klemtu, Bella Bella and River’s Inlet. On display as well are unique sunglasses by First Nations artist Corrine Hunt, a co-designer of the much-praised medals for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.

Just down the street from the Port Hardy Museum, the West Coast Community Craft Shop is a creative showcase for local artists and artisans from painters, potters and carvers to weavers and toy-makers. It’s best to leave plenty of time to browse, and to include a stop at the coffee shop downstairs for a cappuccino and panini – both are excellent here.

Nestled among the neat homes of the Fort Rupert Reserve in Port Hardy, renowned artist Calvin Hunt can be seen at work carving massive blocks of local cedar into totems, masks and traditional ceremonial canoes. Visitors to Fort Rupert, can also take a drive through the reserve to see sky-high totems towering over private yards, the last standing chimney of Fort Rupert itself, a traditional big house and brightly marked native burial grounds visible from the road.

In his gallery in Port McNeill, artist Gordon Henschel captures the essence of the Vancouver Island North’s wilderness forests, beaches and wildlife in soft muted watercolours. The nearby Just Art Gallery is a showcase of authentic North American native artwork from well-known local artists. A stop at the log house containing the Port McNeill Heritage Centre reveals local logging artifacts and historic tools of the trade.

By Kathy Eccles