First Nations Art & Culture in the Vancouver Island Region
|Nuyumbalees Cultural Center - Cultural Education Centre|
For thousands of years Vancouver Island’s original inhabitants have thrived amid our generous landscape. They relied on salmon, cedar, wild game, shellfish and other gifts of nature for their livelihoods. They shared the land with ravens, eagles, whales, bears, loons, otters, sea lions and many more. They savored the clean ocean air and admired the starry skies at night. Water and wood were their constant companions. Carved cedar canoes carried them along our shores, baskets made of cedar bark held their ocean-born food, woven cedar hats shed rain past their shoulders. The Island’s Salish, Kwakwaka’wakw and Nuu-chah-nulth people welcomed the return of the sun each spring, devoted their summers to fishing and harvesting, their autumns to preserving and storing--and spent winters in massive longhouses that fended off wind and rain and provided sturdy shelter for storytelling, singing, dancing and feasting.
Thus the First Nations of our Island developed deep and meaningful arts and culture long before European explorers first sailed to our shores. Today, centuries later, this rich aboriginal culture is one of the most enticing flavours in the banquet of Island life, for both visitors and residents. Though sometimes overlooked amid the bounty of scenery and recreation we offer, these arts are intrinsic to that natural wealth—after all, they derive directly from it. Totems, dance and chant, masks and jewelry, all are on offer for Island visitors, from Victoria’s Inner Harbour to remote hamlets seemingly far from modern life.
Most visitors have already encountered indigenous Pacific Coast culture in museums—around the world, the totems, masks and other arts of our Island are famed for their artistic vigour and evocative storytelling. It is one of the most distinctive art vernacular “voices” on earth, and it’s likely most of the world’s people instantly recognize totems, for instance. While this is just one facet of First Nations culture, it is an enduring and memorable one.
As in the art of the Old World, colour and shape were adapted and idealized to make aesthetically impressive works—consider the graceful representations of bears and whales found on so many totems, or the striking vermillion geometric patterns that adorn so many bentwood boxes. (And remind onlookers of a sunset cloudscape on our West Coast!) But in First Nations art and culture, almost everything shared its artistic side with a utilitarian purpose that lends it greater meaning. Appreciating these underlying purposes allows we modern viewers to savor arts that are as rich as the land from which they spring.
Consider, for instance, the welcome figure—a medium-size totem that generally consists of a tall, stylized individual, usually female, with hands held outward in a universal human gesture. Two such guard the waterfront in Port Alberni, representing a perfect blend of ancient tradition and modern reality—the figures were carved and raised in 2005 by artists from the nearby Hupacasath First Nation and are designed to greet visitors to this mid-island jewel of a town. This modern use harks back to the traditional, centuries-old purpose of welcome figures, which were mounted at the entrance to Island coves, advising travellers that the people living here welcomed all who came with peaceful purpose.
We’d like to think that First Nations art and culture bears a corollary philosophical message to modern travelers who come to Vancouver Island: Welcome, look, listen, learn and value. Here are a few of our favorite places to witness this culture today:
- Royal BC Museum: One of the world’s leading ethnographic institutions, right on Victoria’s Inner Harbour, holds a priceless collection of totems, masks, panels and other indigenous arts. Standouts include the recreation of a Kwakwaka’wakw bighouse, and a stunningly displayed collection of ceremonial masks from almost all the Pacific Coast indigenous cultures; www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca.
- Quw’utsun’ Cultural Centre: Representing the customs and arts of one of BC’s largest indigenous groups, this lovely facility lies beneath tall cottonwoods along the Cowichan River in Duncan, the “City of Totems.” Visitors to the centre can enjoy a presentation of traditional legends and stories, learn how baskets and blankets were woven—or take weaving classes themselves. A midday salmon barbecue is done in traditional style, with butterflied filets cooked over an open fire and served on a large cedar plank. For more information visit www.quwutsun.ca.
- Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre: Located on Quadra Island, a 10 minute ferry ride from Campbell River, this impressive small facility displays totems, boxes, garments, masks and other ceremonial regalia that was stolen from the area’s Kwakwaka’wakw people in the early 20th century during an attempt to stamp out the potlatch, the traditional First Nations feasting ceremony. Potlatches often included initiations and other spiritual elements, and some of the items on display here were—and still are—rarely seen in public. The nearby Tsa-Kwa-Luten Lodge, operated by the Cape Mudge Band of the Kwakwaka’wakw people, offers deluxe lodging; www.nuyumbalees.com.
- U’mista centre: Located in the tiny hamlet of Alert Bay, on equally small Cormorant Island, north of Port McNeill, U’Mista holds one of the world’s most culturally significant collections of indigenous art. As at Nuyumbalees, most of the items here have been returned to the Kwakwaka’wakw owners in recent redress of the century-old potlatch seizures. The highlight is a “Hall of Masks” in which dozens of ceremonial masks are posed in the open—vivid, compelling and free of constraint for all to witness; www.umista.org.
Outside U’mista is a 52.7-meter (173-foot) totem (in two sections) that is currently the world’s tallest; down the road, in the village, the Namgis Burial Grounds preserves one of the few original indigenous graveyards left. Though the grounds are closed to public access, the eight or so totems here are easily seen from the street. As they are meant to in First Nations tradition, they are slowly weathering and decaying as nature works its timeless magic. In the village during the summer peak visitor season, the Alert Bay Band’s T’sasala Cultural Group offers a performance of traditional dance and song, a memorable presentation of an art that has thrived here for centuries… Just like the carvings, weavings, and land and creatures that inspire them.
Discovering Gold River, Vancouver Island
|Star Lake Recreation Area - Gold River
Though the Spanish explorers who named it centuries ago may have hoped there was precious metal in and around Gold River, one of our remote West Coast Island waterways, the name today might better refer to the amber colour of the river waters in autumn—or the treasure that plies those waters, the migrating salmon that return each year to fresh water to continue their species’ remarkable cycle of life. The river’s namesake village, Gold River, is a former mill town with a strong sense of community and an eye to a future based on sustainable economic activity. Gold River and its nearby neighbour, Tahsis, exemplify the possibilities inherent in Island locales that are rich in scenery, recreation and wilderness virtues—but not yet discovered by the hordes of difference-seeking travelers.
The region was discovered long ago, though, by a very famous adventurer, British Captain James Cook. Cook sailed into Nootka Sound on March 30, 1778; here he met the local Nuu-chah-nulth chief, Maquinna. Maquinna’s descendants live today in Gold River, sharing this wonderful area with Cook’s cultural descendants. Among the many things Gold River visitors can do today is take a boat tour to the same beach Cook landed on and walk in the famed explorer’s footsteps. Along the way, as the boat plies the pristine waters of Nootka Sound, visitors are likely to see resident orcas, other whales and dolphins, bald eagles, bears prowling the shorelines and innumerable waterbirds that inhabit the area. A side trip to hot springs accessible only by boat offers a relaxing break from cruising.
From late June through winter, visitors might just as easily head out for action-filled days of fishing for salmon and steelhead. Either onboard a boat, or on the banks of both Gold River and other nearby streams, the silver, pink and other fish that migrate back to freshwater to spawn provide memorable recreation—not to mention great visual appeal in their spawning colours, and great taste on the supper plate in the evening. Those who prefer self-guided exploration can hop in kayaks to poke around quiet coves, admiring the undersea life in crystalline water.
But one need never leave land to fill your time here. Local hiking trails lead visitors along lush river valleys where sun dapples cottonwood leaves—or, for hardier adventurers, up the sides of towering mountains. The Upana Caves draw spelunkers underground to experience the dazzling, unexpected geological sights found in limestone caverns.
Each year in June, hundreds of dedicated volksmarchers venture here in June for the Great Walk, a 65-kilometer trek between Gold River and Tahsis, another village on a quiet cove in Nootka Sound. The walk originated in a challenge between the mayors of the two villages; it raises funds for local charities, but more than that leads walkers along the marvelous shores and valleys of the West Coast.
Gold River offers full visitor amenities, including full-service hotels, outfitters and tour operators. To learn more visit www.goldriver.ca.
Caving in the Vancouver Island Region
|Huson Caves, Vancouver Island|
It takes millions of years for limestone caves to develop, water seeping through cracks in the rock, carving out rooms and passages and redepositing dissolved minerals into stalactites, stalagmites, crystals and all the other features that make caverns so memorable to visit. Light sparkles on calcite facets, thin sheets hanging from above are amber-colored, the depositional forms of rock shaped by eons of dripping seem ever so much like, well, pancake batter. Utter silence abounds, save for the tiny rustle and ping of water. Time seems irrelevant.
Visitors to Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park, northwest of Parksville, can experience all the wonders of caves in several caverns clustered around their namesake lake. Self-guided tours using rented equipment allow spelunkers (the term for cave adventurers) to wander the rooms and inspect the rock formations of these amazing natural features. A half-day excursion suffices for a good introduction to what has taken nature millions of years to create.
But much of Vancouver Island is the youngest portion of the North American continent—a stray shard of earth’s crust that washed up on the main continental plate “just” a little while ago, geologically speaking. And much of the Pacific Coast is composed of igneous and metamorphic rocks that are volcanic or tectonic in origin. Since our island is so young and fresh, how is it that there are caves here?
It’s true that limestone karst comprises just 4 percent of the Island’s surface geology. And the Island itself is largely about 100 million to 200 million years old—not much, in geological terms. But there is more than enough limestone here to provide ample cave-making material. And there is plenty of rainfall to supply leaching water. The scale of comparative time in geology is hard to grasp, in human terms: The world’s biggest cave, Mammoth in Kentucky, is perhaps 10 million years old. So, geologically, a cave can form in a blink of time.
That’s why our Island has, according to local cave fanciers, at least 1,000 caves; more than all other Canadian provinces combined. Most of those are on the north end of the Island, where the largest section of karst lies at or near the surface. Horne Lake is the easiest for visitors to experience, as there are outfitters near the park who can supply the necessary gear—helmets and cave lights—for self-guided cave tours. The company also offers guided tours into one of the most interesting caves, Riverbend, which is not open to self-guided exploration.
The rest of the island’s caves are best visited with local spelunking groups. We have many of those, too; for more information please visit the Vancouver Island Cave Exploration Group at www.cancaver.ca/bc/viceg.
- Eat - Harvest time on the Island is amazing!
- Winery - Cidery Tours
- Late Season Camping
- Enjoy the Fall Colours
- Walking on the Beach
- Whale Watching
- Visit Country Markets
|Hiking the Wild Pacific Trail, Ucluelet, Vancouver Island|
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