Ceremonial masks are among the finest expressions of West Coast First Nations culture, vivid, distinctive, colourful works that combine artistry, craftsmanship, legend and meaning into memorable objects that can be both used and admired. Usually meant to represent spirits, they often seem to actually be those spirits, conveying some otherworldly essence into our universe.
They tell stories of unjust exile and heartfelt homecoming told by the masks and other wonderful artifacts in two of Vancouver Island’s most impressive museums. At Alert Bay’s U’mista, and Quadra Island’s Nuyumbalees, dozens of masks, totems, garments and other items have returned to their origins after decades in other facilities around the world. The treasures were stolen or seized from their Kwakwaka'wakw owners in the early 20th century as part of the now-discredited potlatch ban imposed on indigenous West Coast peoples. Both U’mista and Nuyumbalees display their contents in broad, airy rooms where thoughtful visitors may well conclude there is more to be experienced here than just art.
The mask gallery at U’mista, for example, holds its treasures in the open air, rather than huddled behind glass barriers. Having been imprisoned too long, it’s best these spirits now be free, a placard explains. Visitors are asked not to touch the treasures on display, an easy enough request to follow as the artworks quite palpably reach out to touch their viewers.
This is especially true if you are just a foot away, measuring the intense sidelong gaze of ‘Wat’si (Dog), for instance, the animal spirit that has been humanity’s companion so many thousands of years. An Echo Mask has interchangeable mouthpieces so that Raven, Black Bear or Kulus (Thunderbird) can speak; nearby, the famous Double-headed Serpent (Sisiyutl) can bring either bad luck or healing, depending on the human involved.
At Nuyumbalees, the treasures are held within and without. Nearby petroglyphs have been moved here for protection; ancient totems rest beneath the sheltering roof of the building specially designed to hold them intact.
All these artifacts, carefully made by hand, were the property of Kwakwaka'wakw families at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, and many (especially masks) were worn by their owners during ceremonial dances. Believing that potlatches and other traditional ceremonies were undesirable and “uncivilized,” Canadian government and religious authorities resolved to eradicate them. The various laws that constituted the potlatch ban were in effect from 1884 to 1951. Though misguided at best, the ban was well-aimed in one sense—the ceremonial feast gatherings known as potlatches were central to First Nations culture and identity. Banning them drove the practice underground, and combined with other programs, such as residential schools, to cripple the cultural integrity of many indigenous peoples.
Despite official condemnation, Kwakwaka'wakw leaders did not abandon potlatch, and the conflict culminated in a notorious 1921 raid during which 45 people were arrested. Offered a harsh choice—go to jail or give up their potlatch regalia—many families surrendered their treasures. Though supposedly the property of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, hundreds of these precious objects wound up in museums in Eastern Canada and the United States. Some were even sold into private collections.
This is comparable to raiders seizing, say, altarpieces from a European cathedral. Kwakwaka'wakw leaders always hoped they could regain their treasures, and negotiations for their return began in the 1970s. Two Canadian facilities, the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, were first to send home the seized potlatch artifacts. The U.S. Smithsonian Institution followed suit with some artifacts it held; these three repatriations form the bulk of the exhibits at U’mista and Nuyumbalees, which were built expressly to hold the repatriated art.
Unfortunately some of the treasures that were taken are now in unknown hands, and Kwakwaka'wakw Nation leaders continue to search for them around the world. Similar repatriations have been accomplished for treasures taken from other West Coast nations, such as the Haida. Nor are First Nations peoples the only ones whose cultural wealth has been hijacked over the centuries—controversies around the globe surround some of the art in many famous museums, ranging from Greek frescoes now in the British Museum to Impressionist paintings stolen by Nazis that wound up in American museum collections.
The Canadian potlatch ban ended in 1951, and famed carver Chief Mungo Martin led the first public potlatch renewal in Victoria in 1952. The ceremonies remain a key facet of First Nations life for Native bands from southeast Alaska to Washington state. The treasures on view at Nuyumbalees and U’mista offer a fascinating window into this colorful tradition, and the remarkable artistry that accompanies it. It’s no exaggeration to say that these are among the world’s great art exhibits, but they are much more than that. They represent reconciliation between cultures, and at both U’mista and Nuyumbalees one gets the distinct impression that joyous serenity is replacing quiet sorrow.
Best of all for visitors, each locale is a most appealing destination. Alert Bay lies on Cormorant Island, Nuyumbalees at Cape Mudge on Quadra Island; so a delightful ferry ride is involved in visiting either museum. Catch the ferry for Alert Bay at Port McNeill, toward the far northern end of Vancouver Island; the 15-minute ferry to Quadra Island departs from downtown Campbell River. Both islands have excellent visitor services, including the lovely Tsa-Kwa-Luten Lodge on Quadra, owned and operated by the Cape Mudge Band (We Wai Kai Nation) of the Kwakwaka'wakw people. The journeys to and from the islands are scenic passages during which it’s common to see some of the wild creatures whose spirits have been carved into the art treasures in the museums—orcas, eagles, ravens, ducks. Who knows? Perhaps especially alert travelers will see Sisiyutl, which is local to the Kwak’wala speaking people, or the Thunderbird whose power imbues the West Coast.For more information, visit www.umista.ca and www.nuyumbalees.com.
|Photo: Hilary's Artisan Cheese|
Bread, cheese, ice cream: It’s hard to say which of these basic food groups is Cowichan Bay’s most delectable attraction. Luckily, there’s no need to decide—not even after many visits to this newly distinctive North American culinary destination. The first official slow food town on the continent has quickly become one of Vancouver Island’s favorite pilgrimages for all who like handmade delicacies.
Designated a “cittaslow” in 2009 by the Italian group that promotes local food and less-hasty living, Cowichan Bay is the center of an agricultural district devoted to those concepts.
Poised along the waterfront of the sparkling inlet with which it shares a name, the little hamlet is home to three shrines for artisan foods: True Grain, Hilary’s Cheese and The Udder Guys ice cream store. All three specialize in making distinctive products using local ingredients, and all three offer both memorable meals and local color.
You might well order a dish of coconut ice cream at Udder Guys, for instance, and have garrulous cofounder Yves Muselle explain that the reason it tastes so good is not only the store’s strict reliance on fresh island cream, but the fact they husk, shred and roast the coconut themselves. No prepackaged, sugar-laden ingredients for Udder Guys: their blackberry and strawberry flavors rely on handpicked island fruits.
A few doors down, at True Grain Bakery, baker and co-owner Bruce Stewart can be found, powdered head to toe in flour, grinding heritage Red Fife wheat to use in the bakery’s sensationally hearty breads and rolls. Stewart uses organic grains, from island farmers wherever possible. Red Fife is a wheat variety first planted in 1842 in Ontario; it proved exceptionally suited to Canada, and has a distinctive nutty, robust flavor.
Next door to True Grain, at Hilary’s Cheese, local milk is used for the handmade artisan cheeses, such as “Sacre Bleu,” that are key ingredients in sandwiches made with True Grain breads in the small cafe.
A couple fine seafood restaurants, a hotel, several small inns and B&Bs, and the Cowichan Bay Maritime Centre round out the visitor facilities along the crescent-shaped waterfront just a few minutes southeast of Duncan. It’s compact—you can walk the entire waterfront in less than 10 minutes, but as an international slow food centre you’ll want to spend more time than that. Up the hill is one of Vancouver Island’s longest-established vineyard districts, so the area is a great place to research one of life’s most engaging questions: Have dessert first?For more information visit www.slowcowichan.com.
At first it looks like some Brobdingnagian painter strode along the slopes above Buttle Lake in Strathcona Park, flinging vermilion paint about. Then, peering more closely amid and around the Douglas-fir canopy, you discern that the vivid colours are Pacific dogwoods in their autumn glory, bright as flags. Interposed against these bright patches are the softer gold of willow and birch and the butterscotch of bigleaf maple. It’s autumn in the Pacific coast’s maritime forest, and one of nature’s best spectacles is underway.
It’s also one of nature’s under-appreciated marvels: The hardwood forests of Eastern Canada and New England earn all the hype in the world of fall colour. These eastern oaks, maples, birches and other deciduous trees do indeed put on quite a display, while Western residents are sometimes heard to say we have little autumn colour. Not only is that not true, we enjoy a much longer colour season than back east. All the hues of autumn can be found on Vancouver Island, from late summer on to the Christmas holiday season.
The colour carnival can start as early as late August, when gangly vine maples in dry sites at the edge of conifer woods start to turn crimson, orange and fuchsia; not long afterward, huckleberries do the same. Shorter day lengths and late-summer drought spur these first transformations; both can be seen in the woods along the Inner Island Highway from the Cowichan Valley to Campbell River.
Bigleaf maples are next, starting in late September. While our native big maple trees don’t don the showy raiment of eastern maples, the warm butterscotch-amber colour of bigleaf maples is a treasure in its own right, particularly on autumn mornings after overnight mists clear. Trees on drier sites sometimes show brighter colours; again, the colour is evident from Victoria to the north end of the Island, mostly on the inland side.
The last chorus of autumn’s panoply comes from the Island’s vigorous, tall black cottonwoods, the dynamic West Coast trees that dominate river valleys from Oregon to Alaska. Like bigleaf maples, cottonwoods eschew variety for intensity—the sheer, glorious gold of autumn cottonwood leaves is one of nature’s purest colours. A sensory extra treat is supplied by the smell of the leaves warming in the sun after an overnight rain; few walks are as wonderful as a stroll along a riverside trail among towering golden cottonwoods in October, with the glow and scent of the leaves and the rustle of the breeze in the branches all combining into a symphony beyond compare. Cottonwoods can be found throughout the Island, wherever there is adequate moisture; exceptional stands line the Cowichan and Campbell rivers.That’s almost four months of autumn colour—a natural gift few other places on Earth can claim.
Best Places to get Fish N' Chips in the Vancouver Island Region.
For this edition of islandMOMENTS, we asked our Facebook Fans, what their FAVORITE Fish N' Chips Joint is in the Vancouver Island Region.
Here are their Top Ten...
- Red Fish Blue Fish - Victoria
- Dick's Fish & Chips - Campbell River
- Bond's Fish & Chips - Courtenay
- Trollers - Nanaimo
- Barb's Fish & Chips - Victoria
- Fish on Fifth - Sidney
- Rock Cod Cafe - Cowichan
- Willows Galley - Oak Bay
- Fish Tales - Qualicum
- Jiggers - Ucluelet
For more information about dining in the Vancouver Island Region visit HelloBC.com/vi.
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Favourite islandMOMENTS from Our Readers
Here is an islandMoment shared by one of our Facebook Fans.
"Imagine a Maryland style crab feast a continent away shared with a family from Pakistan. Crab pick’in at its delicious best. And this was just one of our unique experiences wonderfully hosted by Carolyn and Steve Touhey at Two Eagles Lodge on Vancouver Island.
My husband and I have stayed at many B&B’s throughout our travels, but none can compare with the incredible experience we had at the Two Eagles Lodge on Vancouver Island. The hospitality of our hosts was amazing. They were a wealth of information, spectacular views, huge pine trees and even a market with goats on the roof. Guests are treated as family at Two Eagles. Carolyn and Steve took us to hear a local Vancouver Islander sing songs unique to that beautiful part of the world.
At many B&Bs if you are unavailable to eat breakfast at the set time, you are unable to have breakfast. At two Eagles Carolyn provided breakfast to take with us so that we could set off on our adventures before the other guests.
The breath taking beauty of Vancouver Island and the hospitality of Two Eagles Lodge make us eager to return."Pat and John
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