Friday, March 23, 2012

Alert Bay

On Friday, March 21st, we said our goodbyes to Steve and Deborah Lane, and set off for Alert Bay. We took a scenic route – the bus to Port McNeill went along the East Coast of Vancouver Island, stopping in every major town on the way, including Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Courtenay and Campbell River, then veered inland to give us amazing mountain views (with Mt. Cain among others) near a tiny stop in Woss, only to cross the Nimpkish River just before arriving at our destination. From Port McNeill it was only a 45 minute ferry ride to the small, beautiful Cormorant Island and the town of Alert Bay. The whole journey took us around seven hours.

A View from the Bus Window. :)
In Alert Bay we were greeted by Gloria Cranmer Webster and her granddaughter Emily, who welcomed us into their home with a mouthwatering dinner of salmon. We stayed up late talking, and woke up early the next day so that we could make the most of our one-day visit. We started with the U’mista, a Cultural Centre and Museum, where we could see the Potlatch Collection of masks and other regalia returned to Alert Bay after they were confiscated following an illegal Potlatch thrown by Dan Cranmer in 1921. The regalia are presented not behind glass, but free-standing, as the Kwakwaka’wakw community felt that they have been kept in boxes long enough. 

In Front of the U'mista.
U'mista From the Back.
The U’mista Cultural Centre is situated on the coast next to a dreary looking derelict building that used to be a residential school. Institutions of this kind are a dark spot in Canadian history – first established in 1840s with the purpose of gathering Indigenous children in one place and “civilizing” them, they were places of horror in which the children not only lost their language and contact with their families and culture, but many of them were also abused and even killed. Nowadays, the trauma of residential schools is still very much part of First Nations reality, and the building in Alert Bay is a case in point – it is considered a cursed place, yet it still stands, frightening passers-by with gaping, broken windows and falling bricks, a constant reminder and an eyesore. 

Residential School.
After visiting the U’mista, we met with Emily, who gave us a tour around the island, driving us to the Big House, where the Potlatches are held. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go inside without the keys, but we could still admire the beautiful artwork decorating the building, as well as the totem pole in front of it, which, at 173 feet, is the tallest totem pole in the world. Later, Emily arranged for us to meet Wayne Alfred, a member of the Ha’matsa Society, who dances during Potlatch. He agreed to answer our questions about the Potlatch and other aspects of Indigenous culture, and gave a brief demonstration of the Ha’matsa Dance depicting the myth of a cannibal returning to the village from the forest and being tamed back into a human being. 

The World's Tallest Totem Pole.

The Interview With Wayne Alfred.
Next on our agenda was cooking dinner – again, we made pierogies - as a thank you to Gloria Cranmer Webster for her kindness and hospitality. Afterwards, Emily took us for a walk in the forest and along the beach, and we ended up circling the entire island. :) Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay up late again, because we needed a very early start the next day. Armed with Gloria’s delicious salmon sandwiches, we began our journey back on the first ferry to Port McNeill at 6:40 a.m., and arrived in Vancouver around 8 p.m., having travelled by two ferries, three buses and a train. Let’s just say it was a long day. :P

With Emily On Our Walk.

With Gloria Cranmer Webster and her Granddaughter, Emily.

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