A fabulous day at Alert Bay

The `Namgis Burial Ground at Alert Bay, British Columbia, is an amalgam of old and new ways. Totem poles are erected in a person’s memory, along with “modern” headstones. By tradition, the totem poles are allowed to decay and fall, as seen at right.

Saturday, July 23

A DAY OF CULTURAL ENRICHMENT and fascination for us Ospreyites.

We’re making a stopover at the municipal docks at Port McNeill on northern Vancouver Island to wait out winds that are supposed to blow to 35 knots in the next few days. Left Osprey at the dock and went as walk-ons on the B.C. Ferries boat to Alert Bay, a `Namgis First Nations town of about 1,500 people on nearby Cormorant Island.

A totem at `Namgis Burial Grounds.

Three good things:

(1) Visited Alert Bay’s wonderful U’mista Cultural Centre. It was clearly one of the best museums we’ve seen, with a collection of original/authentic native masks and regalia worn in potlatches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If you’re not familiar, potlatches (still part of local native culture) are big community celebrations in which gifts are given to attendees, traditionally thrown by a chief to show off his wealth in former days. To this day, they mark occasions such as weddings, naming of a child, deaths or other community events. Traditionally, a potlatch involved a marathon of dancing, with dancers wearing intricately carved and painted masks and other regalia representing many familiar creatures (e.g., whales, eagles, bears and ravens) and legendary characters such as Dzanakwa (the spelling of which varies widely). She is “the wild woman of the woods,” fabled to carry off naughty children and eat them (a handy threat parents could use to keep kids in line). In the late 19th century, when European missionaries came to British Columbia, the government outlawed potlatches as “uncivilized” and eventually confiscated many of the masks and the potlatch regalia. The items went into private collections and national museums across Canada. But around 1980, Canadians recognized the injustice and repatriated the artifacts to First Nations-run museums here and elsewhere on the B.C. coast.

At U’mista Cultural Centre, you may try on replica masks, such as the Dzanakwa mask your correspondent models here. Naughty children, beware. Barbara Marrett photo.

Here, we marveled at scores of well-preserved, original masks, robes and hats, not just replicas. Many were colored with dyes made from nature: blackberry purples, elderberry reds, moss greens. These originals touched me in a way the replicas couldn’t match. Among my favorites: mallard hats, with duck heads on long necks poking from the front; the big-nosed Fool Dancer mask, whose wearer enforced the strict rules of the potlatch, using his club or axe (!) to bean misbehavers, while pretending to smear them with mucus from the big nose “about which he is very self-conscious” (according to the curator’s notes); and the aforementioned Dzanakwa. Curator notes told “how to spot a Dzanakwa in art”: a dark, hairy body, sunken eyes (often sleepy), puckered lips, large hands and pendulous breasts. How to spot her in real life: “Very stinky, you will smell her before you see her.” In all of these creations, not only did the indigenous people exhibit splendid artistry and craftsmanship, their imagination and humor was delightful. (Sorry I can’t share images of the original works; photography was prohibited in that part of the museum.)

A bonfire blazes in the center of the sand floor in the ceremonial Big House at Alert Bay.

(2) Alert Bay was celebrating a community festival. We got to go inside the Big House, where dancers performed and a bonfire blazed in the center of a sandy floor (with the roof opened for smoke to escape). On a field outside, kids played soccer. One native man played guitar and sang a soulful Righteous Brothers tune.

Yeah, I think they mean it. Alert Bay’s once-bustling industries of shipbuilding and fish processing have gone by the wayside, leaving decaying docks.
Contrasting with decaying docks are rows of tidy, colorfully painted homes on Alert Bay’s main street.

(3) Rode on a modern, new all-electric car ferry from Port McNeill to Alert Bay, about a half-hour trip. A trim B.C. Ferries vessel, very quiet, smooth riding and with no exhaust fumes. The future of water travel.

A modern, all-electric ferry serves Alert Bay.

We might be another day in Port McNeill before winds settle a bit. Then southward, ho, for Desolation Sound. Enjoy your summer.