Exploring British Columbia’s Broughton Archipelago: A Region Rich in Indigenous Culture

We Explore Canada Contributor Hans Tammemagi recounts his experience in British Columbia’s Broughton Archipelago, and specifically the sights and sounds that resonated with him in his quest to learn more about the rich Indigenous culture and history in the area.

The Umista Centre at Alert Bay
The U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, British Columbia. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

A rusty, derelict boat barely visible through a tangle of weeds lies next to a clapboard shed. Farther along the harbour an abandoned, decaying fish processing plant, supported by creosoted pilings, extends onto the water. In contrast, a pavilion, or awakwa, features a beautifully carved Thunderbird with bright black and white ovoids that tells the mythical story of one of the ‘Namgis clans.

This is Alert Bay on Cormorant Island off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, a village of contrasts stretching along the waterfront. Home to the ‘Namgis First Nation for thousands of years, the island has numerous Indigenous carvings, such as totem poles reaching proudly toward the sky. These contrast starkly with unkempt and abandoned areas nearby.

Setting Sail in the Broughton Archipelago

The Columbia III with Mothership Adventures
The Columbia III. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

I’ve arrived aboard the Columbia III on a cruise operated by Mothership Adventures that started in Port McNeill and will meander among the hundreds of islands of the Broughton Archipelago. Although the tour’s purpose is kayaking, my goal is to learn about the local Indigenous history and culture.

We head ashore to the U’mista Cultural Centre, which captures both the agony and glory of the Kwakwaka’wakw people, a group of 16 First Nations communities in this region that share a common language. A film shows how a large potlatch (considered illegal by white people) on Village Island was raided in December 1921 by provincial police, and the priceless ceremonial regalia was confiscated.

About 25% of the seized items have since been repatriated and are showcased in the Potlatch Collection. The collection’s gallery, designed as a traditional big house, is full of coppers and masks representing ravens, eagles, orcas, bears, the moon, and the sun as well as supernatural creatures.

I sense a powerful pulse, an emotional celebration of the songs, legends, and dances embodied in these masks and regalia. 

Our guide, a young Indigenous man, concludes the tour by saying he is very proud of his cultural history. I’m moved and quietly wonder what in my colonial culture makes me proud?

Looking Up at the World’s Largest Totem Pole

Only yards away from the modern cultural centre there once stood the decaying St. Michael’s residential school. This was a hulking, red-bricked reminder of the persecution of the local Indigenous people who, from 1929 to 1974, had children forcibly taken from their families to live and study at the school. The church and government’s goal in this was to “take the Indian out of the child” by removing their culture, traditional names, and language.

The school was demolished in 2015, and now only an empty field and a plaque mark the spot where so many abuses occurred.

I stroll to the Big House, its front painted in bold green, black, and red, representing a whale. The world’s tallest totem pole, 173 feet (56.4 m), soars in front. Inside, a fire lights the dusky interior, illuminating colourful totems, and immense cedar posts and beams. The smell of smoke envelopes me as four men drum on a log. Youngsters in regalia and masks circle the fire, performing traditional dances. 

the Big House in Alert Bay
The Big House in Alert Bay. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

After the ceremony, I visit the Indigenous cemetery and am touched by the extraordinary array of cedar totems and crosses. An intriguing mixture of faiths. I admire the totems, including the one erected for Mungo Martin, a high-ranking chief and respected carver who, in 1953, was the first to host a potlatch after the ban was lifted by the federal government.

A potlatch is a ceremony traditionally practiced by First Nations living on the Northwest Coast. It would occur over several days and involve great feasts, spirit dancing, as well as singing, and performances. These ceremonies were usually used to honour an event (a birth, a marriage), and the focus was on giving or gift giving. Valuable goods, titles, or land could be bestowed on individuals attending the potlatch, and it was, and often still is, an integral part of the culture.

Sailing away from Alert Bay, I don’t know whether to rejoice or to cry. The village has living conditions that, in places, are run down. But it also displays a proud Indigenous culture that is rooted in nature. 

The next morning, we rise to a mist obscuring nearby islands. Soon, the rising sun chases the fog, and the Columbia purrs through the archipelago, leaving a wake that gently caresses the shorelines. 

Each day, the Columbia drops us at a new site, and we kayak about 15 kilometres. Our paddling is leisurely as we enjoy sightings of the abundant marine life, including dolphins, seals, humpback, killer and minke whales, sea otters, little jumping fish, and sea lions. We are accompanied by a constant flurry of birdlife, such as gulls, marbled murrelets, oystercatchers, pigeon guillemots, and rhinoceros auklets. Almost everywhere we go, there are signs of Indigenous culture.

The Cemetery on Alert Bay
The cemetery. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

Pictography on Berry Island

A mortuary box peeks out of the greenery on Berry Island. Not allowed to go ashore, we study the box with binoculars, wondering what high-ranking Indigenous person lies inside and how he or she lived and died.

We board kayaks, and as we paddle along the north shore of Berry Island, a red pictograph winks at us from a cliff. Well faded, the image is known as the Chief’s Bath, and the red colouring came a rock called red ochre mixed with salmon eggs. We spend a few minutes trying to decipher the meaning of the pictograph, then we proceed through a maze of islands to Growler Cove, where we anchor for the night. 

When we awake, fog hangs like an ethereal blanket over the islands. I join Skipper Ross Campbell in the wheelhouse. He says, “Built in 1955, the Columbia III is the last of the three hospital/mission ships that brought medical and social lifelines to inaccessible communities from 1905 to 1969.”

Now re-fitted in shining brass and gleaming mahogany, the Columbia is a classic wooden boat and is often sought out by those who were touched by it.

Petrography on Berry Island
“The Chief’s Bath” Pictograph on Berry Island. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

Later we paddle to a cove on Tracey Island, where a 2-foot-high pile of rocks stretches for almost 100 yards along the intertidal zone. “This is an Indigenous clam garden,” explains Sam, one of our naturalists/guides, “where clams were gathered at low tide.” There are many in the Broughtons, and I have seen about eight.” He adds, “As the First Nations say, When the tide is out, the table is set.”

At the Burdwood Group, a glorious gaggle of little islands, we land our kayaks on a beach composed of marble-sized granite pebbles. We lie on the sun-warmed stones for a while, then stroll into the forest where several cedar trees have long vertical scars (known as culturally modified trees) where the local Indigenous Peoples sustainably farmed cedar bark, which was used to make hats, clothes, baskets and much more. The cedar is vital and is considered “the Tree of Life.” The lengthy and remarkable Indigenous history in this bounteous archipelago is impressive.

Knowledge and Lessons to Carry Forward

Under a blue sky, we arrive at the deserted Village Island and a beach whitened by broken clamshells. Signs of a previously flourishing village of the Mamalilikulla First Nation are everywhere: broken pieces of pottery and metal litter the beach, and a decaying totem pole lies horizontal in the forest. The cries of anguish as Chief Dan Cranmer’s potlatch was raided and the treasures of masks, coppers, and rattles were confiscated can be sensed in the abandoned village.

The midden (layers of broken clam shells left by centuries of First Nations habitation) is light-coloured and the beach is like sand; it has been dated at more than 6,000 years of age. We have seen middens like this on many Broughton islands.

As we motor past Alert Bay on our final day, I see the cemetery and its totems, the awakwas, and the Umista Cultural Centre. The cruise has shown the vibrance and richness of Indigenous culture, and it’s good to see it being cherished again.

Sunset in the Broughton Archipelago
Sunset in the Broughton Archipelago. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

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