We catch the 8:40 ferry from Port McNeill, arriving in Alert Bay about 45 minutes later. It’s our first time in a place I’ve been hankering to visit all the years we were speeding north, usually through the sheltered northern route through the Broughtons. And all the more so this year, since the report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools was finalized on June 2nd. Our Waggoner’s cruising guide says this of Alert Bay : “One can learn more about native culture here, in less time, than anywhere on this part of the coast.” This turns out to be true, although I think that getting a grasp of the cultures of traditional Pacific Northwest peoples from the Nisqually Reach to Sitka is more of a lifelong endeavor.
We disembark at the ferry dock, where a carved sign hung from log gate adorned with native art proclaims ‘Namgis First Nation – Gilakas’la – Welcome. We take the fine boardwalk northwest around the Bay. We run into a bald eagle resting on the boardwalk rail, two local elders worrying about its health, and the owner of a nearby coffee shop who will contact animal rescue. We pass the Anglican Church, sugar white Victorian confectionery, 1892-style. At regular intervals along the boardwalk are log pavilions decorated with totem-type sculptures, among them the first of many Thunderbird and a Sun Man motifs we’ll see throughout the day.
Finally, I catch up with Jack at our destination, a traditional plank and beam longhouse that houses the U’mista Cultural Center. The Center represents the culture of the Kwakwala-speaking peoples, also known as the Kwakiutl. If the Salish Sea is the homeland of speakers of the Salish languages, these waters might be called the Kwakiutl Sea. The waters start at Campbell River and extend north deep into the mainland beyond Cape Caution and around the top of Vancouver Island to Quatsino Sound. The local ‘Namgis Band, who migrated here from the mouth of the Nimpkish River near Port McNeill are just one of many many groups.
U’mista embodies the idea of ‘return home’. The Center was built to contain the regalia, masks, rattles, whistles and coppers seized by the government, with participants hauled off to prison, in 1921 and returned in 1980. The potlatch, perpetually misunderstood, was outlawed in 1885, but continued underground in the communities on this part of the coast. I’ll let the Center’s leaflet explain potlatch:
Since time beyond recollection, the Kwak’wala speaking groups had expressed their joy through the potlatch. The word “potlatch” comes from Chinook jargon, a trade pidgin formerly used along the coast. It means “to give” and came to designate a ceremony common to peoples on the Northwest Coast and parts of the Interior. The potlatch ceremony marks important occasions in the lives of the Kwakwaka’wakw: the naming of children, marriage, transferring rights and privileges and mourning the dead. Guests witnessing the event are given gifts. The more gifts distributed, the higher status achieved by the potlatch host. It is a time for showing the masks and dances owned by the chief giving the potlatch.
Although there was no immediate opposition to the potlatch at the time of initial contact with the white man, such opposition began to grow with the coming of missionaries and government agents. Frustration over unsuccessful attempts to ‘civilize’ the people of the potlatch led officials, teachers, and missionaries to pressure the federal government into enacting legislation prohibiting the ceremonies.
The exhibit of stolen and returned treasures is introduced by stunning footage contemporary pot latches. It’s possible that no one does potlatches better than the ‘Namgis and the U’mista Cultural Center has kept traditions alive. Rather than borrow the century old masks from the museum – the Tlingit around Sitka periodically don their regalia displayed in the US National Park Visitors Center – they have created their own. Their carvers have created both reproductions and brilliant contemporary renditions. Every family has a capes and tunics hand sewn in traditional styles, many with motifs outlined with hundreds of shell button. The women know how to remove cedar bark in long strips without harming the trees and weave the conical hats. Cedar strips, twisted, knotted or simply hanging loose, hula-skirt fashion, also complete the costumes of the highly acrobatic male dancers.
Filmed in the large ceremonial big house we later walk up the hill to see, the center’s documentary shows a recent celebration. Chiefs, drummers, dancers, and processioners with small children in their arms circle a live fire in the middle of the room. The entire community, turned out in full dress, is seated three tiers deep along the four walls. Dance, costumes and music are spectacular.
We witness some of this live because our visit happens to coincide with National Aboriginal Day. “The band is celebrating with a procession at noon followed by a salmon bake,” the young man at the U’mista reception desk tells us as we enter, “You’re invited to join us for lunch.” Really?
When head outside after our U’mista visit, sure enough, a tent with seating has been set up on the waterfront and several feeble members of the band are being carefully wheeled from the elders’ home on the hill. Soon a small procession led by newly elected Mayor Deborah arrives. It is such a hot day that the walkers immediately cast off their robes, leaving on only their protective cedar bark hats.
“Please, have something to eat,” says a bystander.
“Let us wait until others are served,” we say, noticing the short line. We wander off only to be engaged in conversation by a couple lunching on lawnchairs in the deep shade of a cedar tree.
“Have you had lunch?” they ask. We say no. Having just noticed the site where the Indian Residential School stood we ask when it was taken down.
“Oh just this year,” they say, introducing an attractive man sitting on the grass nearby. “Larry was a student there.”
“I was there until it closed in 1976,” says Larry, shaking his head. “It’s good not to see that old building there. Come on, I’m taking you to get some lunch.”
True, there are copious amounts of food: especially salmon but also potato salad, carrot sticks, tossed salad, water melon and delicious warm morsels of what Alaskans call ‘fry bread’ and people here call ‘bannock’. If the potlatch is central to the local culture and giving is the spiritual core potlatch, it makes sense that there is more than enough food for everybody.
We learn a lot about giving and taking and destroying and restoring during our day at Alert Bay.
In addition to the permanent exhibit of potlatch items, the U’mista Cultural Center also has rotating exhibits. Along the ramp to the main hall are historic photos of native villages throughout the Kwakwaka’wakw region, including many sites where we’ve anchored or docked. Each is paired with documents from a 1980s oral history project: a striking photo of an elder and text with his or her words. These elders speak less about everyday activities and material culture than about the stories that explain the spiritual heritage of that particular First Nation. Several of these refer to quaking earth and deluge, which would be the Cascadia Subduction Zone seismic event of January 1700, also documented by the Japanese the “orphan Ttsunami'” and recently affirmed by contemporary seismologists thanks to the work of geologist Brian Atwater. (You can download this intensely interesting, profusely illustrated account from the USGS website here.)
But the U’mista exhibit that really wallops me is Speaking to Memory: Images and Voices from St. Michael’s Indian Residential School. One of the largest of the Indian Residential Schools, St. Mike’s became the home to generations of children who were forcibly removed from their homes throughout the far flung network of islands and Inlets of the Kwakwaka’wakw region. The gallery at U’mista contains selected items from the larger 2014 exhibit at MOA, the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Dominating the center of the hall are participatory works of art – a miniature dugout racing canoe covered with thousands of colorful, individually decorated, Scrabble-like tiles and a couple textile panels incorporating messages in the native language. But it’s the text and photographs around the edges that grip me to tears for an hour and a half.
The first wall pairs two photos, one taken in 1930 and the other in 2013. Alert Bay’s St. Michael’s Indian Residential School, one of the 120 federally administrated schools across Canada, was the forced detention center for children from villages throughout the Broughtons and the villages of Vancouver Island. It was operated by the Anglican Church of Canada until 1976 and had stood empty as no appropriate use could be found for the building. Until several months ago it filled the space between U’mista and the attractive modern health clinic and adjacent home for elders. Colorful sticky notes and whiteboard messages in English and Kwakiutl record the feelings of Alert Bay citizens about the final erasure of St. Mike’s from their village landscape.
Next I move along two walls move on which are tacked floor to ceiling photos of students in BC residential schools coupled with poignant recollections of life in them. I read every single word. The “student” testimonies are those of adults looking back in the early 1990s. Most, not all, refer to heartbreaking injustices inflicted on children. Most, not all authors, are Anonymous: the past has not yet receded and there’s still risk of retribution. (I am too shattered to think about notes; after all, everything is now part of the historical record. But before walking out into the mid day sunlight I snap a quick photo of a couple of the testimonies, a random souvenir.)
And they did not spare the rod, perhaps that’s where our people learned to hit as a way of getting their way. And when we got into alcohol, we drank as if there was no tomorrow. If there is anything good to be said about St. Mikes, it would be soccer. They brought soccer to us. Oh yea, as a special treat on Easter Sunday we had one hard-boiled egg. The only time we had an egg.
We were not allowed to pass the line. We couldn’t go near the boys and the boys couldn’t come near us, and we weren’t allowed to go outside the gate or outside the fence. If we did that we got punished. We were well protected you know. That’s what I like about that. That saved me maybe from a lot of things, you know. When they get strict with us and we learn obedience and we learn to try and follow the rules, you know.
I wonder how this all plays out. Alert Bay’s Anglican church is still shipshape and beneath the totems of the village’s contemporary burial grounds is the odd headstone in the form of a cross. Forbearance and inclusivity seem to reign. Mentally I run through the churches we’ve seen all along the coast. From the Bible church at the foot of Washington’s Hood Canal, the graves of its cemetery decked out in tinsel, to the onion-domed gem in Ninikchuk, Alaska, whose Native priest gave us a tour, speaking with pride about Orthodoxy’s deep global roots and the Fourth Century priests who made their way from the Eastern Mediterranean to China. I wonder: is it overarching tradition of Native spirituality that fosters such forbearance and inclusivity?
At last I come to the final room of the exhibit, a series of seven long scrolls bearing official letters of apology from the Prime Minister and from the heads of the churches with whom the Canadian federal government contracted to operate the schools across the country. Here’s an excerpt from the long letter from Prime Minister Stephen Harper:
The government now recognizes that the consequences of the Indian residential Schools policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on Aboriginal culture, heritage and language. While some former students have spoken positively about their experiences at residential schools, these stories are far over-shadowed by tragic accounts of the emotional, physical and sexual abuse and neglect of helpless children, and their separation from powerless families and communities.
The panel with the letter from Anglican Bishop Michael Peers is a litany of contrition.
I have felt shame and humiliation as I have heard of suffering inflicted by my people,and as I think of the part our church played in that suffering.
I am deeply conscious of the sacredness of the stories that you have told and I hold in the highest honor those who have told them.
I have heard with admiration the stories of people and communities who have word at healing, and I am away of how much healing is needed.
I also know that I am in need of healing, and my own people are in need of healing , and our church is in need of healing. Without that healing, we will continue the same attitudes that have done such damage in the past. ….
I am sorry, more than I can say, that we were part of a system which took you and your children from home and family.
I am sorry, more than I can say, that we tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity.
I am sorry, more than I can say, that in our schools so many were abused physically, sexually, culturally and emotionally. …
This resonates with me. This is the time and place for it to do so. My past is longer than my future. I have experienced – albeit at some distance – so much injustice spiraling without resolution, no end in sight. In the past two weeks, I’ve read two compelling works of fictional realism on the great anti-colonial wars of my lifetime. Kamel Daoud’s recently translated Mersault Investigation is set in Algeria, where we spent our honeymoon in 1971. At the time, the nation’s honeymoon with national liberation following a valiant fight still had not dissipated into violent score settling of age old strife. The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen gets to the heart of the sad saga of the war in Vietnam. Our invasion, the war without reason, and its retributive aftermath. Vietnam is where I plan to celebrate my 70th birthday on a bicycle trip with our daughter Selena.
The next book in my queue came just when I needed it. The Book of Forgiving is a new work by Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Mpho, an Anglican priest. Archbishop Tutu has witnessed some of the worst crimes people can inflict on others. So wherever he goes, he inevitably gets asked this question: ‘How do I forgive?’ This book is his answer. He and his daughter lay out the simple but profound truths about the significance of forgiveness, how it works, why everyone needs to know how to grant it and receive it, and why granting forgiveness is the greatest gift we can give to ourselves when we have been wronged. This is a How to Book and it’s good. Illustrating with myriad examples,the authors explain the four-step process of forgiveness—Telling the Story, Naming the Hurt, Granting Forgiveness, and Renewing or Releasing the Relationship.
As I start the last chapter of the beautiful, short Book of Forgiving we come in range of wifi and learn this: A young white supremacist, welcomed into a Bible study group at an historic Black church, shoots everyone there, killing most, including the pastor, who is a State Senator. Three days later I watch a video of the parishioners addressing the accused who has been taken into custody. They talk to him one by one, telling him forgiveness is there. Not just from God but also from their community. It’s as if they have read the Tutus’ book.