When I travel alone, I frequently give myself projects to investigate. History, genealogy, favourite authors, famous museums, family chinaware – I can make a vacation project from anything in the world that interests me. That way, I keep busy learning something new, and loneliness doesn't become an issue. Occasionally, however, I just want to get away to a quiet place with a book and do nothing. That was my plan when I drove onto a ferry expecting to head for tiny, peaceful Mayne Island. So it was quite a shock to drive off the ferry and find myself on the road to the city of Victoria – Vancouver Island – not Mayne Island.
How, I still do not know, but somehow I boarded the wrong boat at Tsawwassen Terminal (about an hour's drive south of Vancouver). It was 9pm, too late for another ferry. Nothing to do but go with the flow, stay the night in Victoria, and catch the right ferry in the morning. Ten o'clock at night during tourist season is no time to arrive in Victoria without a reservation, but with a little luck and more money than I wanted to spend, I found a nice room at Gatsby's, a lovely restored mansion located right on Victoria's inner harbor.
Next morning, I sat on the terrace savoring a delicious breakfast of Eggs Benedict along with a sweeping view of bobbing harbor vessels and stately buildings lining Government Street. Framed by a sphere of sparkling blue sky and lamp posts draped in flowering baskets, the grand old Empress Hotel and neighboring Parliament Buildings added just the right touch of old-world charm to the scene. Victoria, on a day like this, is about as pretty as a place can get.
Why not, I thought, spend an hour at the museum (Royal British Columbia Provincial Museum) before moving on. It's just a stone's throw. So I did. I browsed along the exhibits, only mildly interested, until a Potlatch display caught my eye. I knew the term "Potlatch" referred to some kind of party among First Nations peoples, but there my knowledge ended in ignorance of British Columbia's ancient history.
"The Potlatch," read the information plaque, "celebrated an important event: a marriage, the raising of a totem pole, a ceremony in which the heir to a social position claimed his inheritance."
Interest aroused, I read on: "Missionaries and government agents recognized that if their attempts to make over the Indian were to succeed, they must first eliminate both potlatch and native ceremonials. Such an act was passed in 1884.
"Some Indian groups complied with the law; others, like the Kwakiutl, were passionately outraged. 'We will dance when our laws command us to dance, and we will feast when our hearts desire to feast.'"
Religion and government persisted in the Indians' so-called salvation. Numerous incidents and arrests took place, and potlatch regalia was confiscated. In 1922 Indian Agent Halliday wrote to his superiors: "the potlatch will be absolutely dead."
Suddenly, I wanted to know more about these feisty Kwakiutl. And if that meant giving up relaxing at Mayne Island, so be it. Two other museums easily accessible from Vancouver Island, by car and ferry, tell the Kwakiutl story: the Kwagiulth Museum at Cape Mudge Village, Quadra Island, (150 miles north of Victoria) and the U'mista Cultural Centre at Alert Bay (300 miles north of Victoria).
In days past, warring tribes sent raiding parties to take captives. Captives who were returned home via ransom or by a retaliatory raid were said to have u'mista. The Cultural Centre in Alert Bay is for the u'mista (or returning home) of native history, language and culture. Alert Bay, "like a small jewel, lies cradled in the arms of Cormorant Island, just off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island." So says the brochure, but the day I went, the jewel lay shrouded in mist. A rag-tag row of frame buildings hugged a harbor filled with modern fishing boats, and except for a few totem poles standing in the town cemetery, the main street presented little evidence of a thriving historical culture.
At the U'mista Centre, however, the sound of thumping drums and chanting voices greeted my arrival. Dancing children dipped and swayed, little tow-haired, red-haired and black-haired moppets twisting and swirling, their earnest six-year-old eyes fixed intently upon a young woman who simultaneously counted time and called out encouragement: Thump, thump, thump, "That's good Mary. Very nice Joey. Turn, one, two, three..." The jolly sounds infused the building with homey warmth as I wandered the hallways looking at photos and reading the info sheets.
James Charles Kay, Alert Bay, l977: "And my uncle took me to the Parish Hall where the Chiefs were gathered. Odan picked up a rattle and spoke: 'We are come to say goodbye to our life,' while all the Chiefs standing in a circle around their regalia were weeping."
Agnes Alfred: "What they did to us because of the potlatch was terrible. ... They made us suffer so much, which is why we had forgotten our ways. ...Now they are strongly urging us to show how things were done in early times. They the white people."
I emerged subdued and thoughtful from the U'mista Centre to find the mist had lifted, and now, stretched out between green hillsides and ocean waters twinkling in the sunlight, the little Village of Alert Bay did then appear to me like a jewel cradled in a very special piece of British Columbia.
Midway between Victoria and Alert Bay, Quadra Island is a 15-minute ferry ride from Campbell River. It is home to a scattering of resorts and cottages, an assortment of city-life dropouts, and the pride of Cape Mudge Village, the Kwagiulth Museum.
One of the museum directors told me what happened when the Cranmer family had a big potlatch back in 1922. The Indian Agent and the RCMP gave participating chiefs two options: turn over their potlatch regalia or go to prison. Some chiefs gave up their artifacts, others preferred prison. After that the people took the Potlatch "underground" and devised ways to avoid detection, such as wrapping potlatch gifts as Christmas presents. Finally, in l952, 78 years after enactment, a Canadian Government with a new attitude unceremoniously let the potlatch law slip away. In l979 with the Kwagiulth Museum complete and the U'mista Centre following in l980, a portion of the regalia was returned to those who had struggled so long to keep their traditions alive.
British Columbians are so smug, always have been. Even before they knew they were British Columbians they were smug. They were smug even back in 1773, when that old sea-salt Captain James Cook and his cohorts, William Bligh and George Vancouver, went sailing over the Pacific in search of the legendary Northwest passage. Instead, the seafarers found a large, deeply forested island inhabited by the people of Nootka.
The Nootka were among the First Nations peoples of the Pacific Northwest who were kin of Raven and Eagle, and Wolf, and Bear, and Killer Whale. And they had legends of their own, which had been passed from generation to generation over 9,000 years. They were old-timers in those parts. Those old-timers were rich; this they knew: the misty forests, awesome mountains, fresh rivers, and clear lakes held the fulfillment of their every physical and spiritual need. It had always been so. It would remain so.
The old-timers happily traded their blessings with the newcomers and hardly even noticed when, without much ado, they were suddenly made British Columbians, and their island was suddenly called Vancouver Island, and the other great islands to the north, where the fierce Haida lived, were suddenly said to be Queen Charlotte's islands.
The old-timers never expected that the newcomers would put up a fort on their island and call it Victoria. The old-timers never dreamt that in not so many years, steamships would ply the waters about their large island and the many little islands that lay serenely quiet and empty upon the waters between themselves and the endless mainland forests. They never imagined ships ferrying newcomers back and forth to gulf island retreats where painters and writers and hobby farmers would live, and tourists would go to rest, and fish, and ride bicycles and horses, and stay in quaint bed and breakfast inns or fancy fishing resorts.
The First Nations of the northwest continued as before, fishing, hunting, and celebrating their blessings at gift-giving potlatches. They remained smugly unaware of impending change for a long time. But at last it became clear something was amiss when hitherto unknown newcomer diseases, such as measles and smallpox, began killing old-timers at an alarming rate while the newcomers kept thriving, and their numbers kept growing.
And an industrious lot they were too, those newcomers. The adventurer explorers Fraser, Mackenzie, and Thompson pushed inland through the Cariboo country, the Chilcotin country, and the Kootenays. Fur-traders followed, then gold seekers. After the adventurers came the cowboys to the Cariboo and Chilcotin, the farmers to the fertile Fraser Valley in the south and the Peace River country to the north. The fruit growers went to the dry and sunny Okanagan Valley. Miners and railroaders came to the Kootenay country to collect gold, silver, copper, and coal. Fishermen came for the salmon, and loggers for the trees, and also came the lawmen and the newcomers' government. And those that came, one and all, marveled at the great beauty and bounty of the land.
About then the plentiful newcomers decided that the few old-timers didn't appreciate the value of regular work habits; they were wasting time and having too much fun potlatching, and they ought to quit such nonsense, and get on with the new way of life . . . or else. That's when the old-timers finally realized that something was really wrong. Some of them said no one was going to mess with their potlatching, and they took their fantastic masks and dancing regalia and hid them away. But in secret, they continued dancing, and feasting, and recounting history and legends in their own terms.
The newcomers got wind of this clandestine potlatching and denounced it as most wicked behavior, saying that unsavory, uncivilized, and intolerable rituals were practiced at potlatches. Caught potlatchers did a stint in newcomer jails.
You old-timers are a good-for-nothing bunch railed the newcomers.
You newcomers are a lying, greedy bunch retorted the old-timers.
Distressed by such nastiness among her people, British Columbia shed many tears, so that people in other lands began passing the word from place to place that it does nothing at all but rain in British Columbia. And so it went with British Columbia for many years while the old-timers tried to keep to their ancient ways and the newcomers went about changing everything. Eventually, the newcomers went to a favorite old-timers' fishing spot – a sandbar in Burrard Inlet once named the Village Snauq – and changed its name to Granville Island.
The newcomers built sawmills, foundries, and slaughterhouses on Granville Island so that the citizens of the city of Vancouver could keep busy. Surrounded as they were by lush, green mountains and bountiful sea, and smug as they were about the beauty and bounty of their British Columbia, Vancouverites hardly noticed that the fishes had left the waters around Granville Island, and that foul air wafted malodorously about the heart of the city. But at last one day, some of the people peered into the smokey haze and said: This Granville Island really is a mess.
So the newcomers took up hammers, and saws, and paint brushes, and they cleaned up Granville Island. An aromatic food market replaced a smelly old foundry. The factories and warehouses were transformed into theaters and galleries to be filled with art and culture.
Now, the newcomers had to admit that their culture was pretty thin compared to the 9,000 years of carvings, and dances, and legends that the old-timers used to celebrate at their potlatches. So it came to pass that the newcomers had to respectfully ask the old-timers to gather up their culture and bring it to the city. And fortunately some of them did.
The Haida, the Kwagiulth, the Salish and the others brought their carvings and dancing regalia, their basketry and weavings, and they filled up the galleries, and they put up marvelous totem poles in the parks. And, too, they filled up the museums: the Royal Provincial Museum in Victoria and the renowned Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver tell the wonders of Pacific Northwest native culture.
Meanwhile, the ever industrious newcomers kept busy developing spectacular resorts, like Whistler/Blackcomb Village, 90 km north of Vancouver, to name only the most exciting of several excellent ski areas of which British Columbians boast.
This combined cultural and industrious activity among the people raised British Columbia's spirits, and the land once again beamed so brightly that an internationally respected travel writer (Jan Morris) was compelled to remark that rain had not once dampened her six trips to Vancouver.
In actual fact, however, British Columbia does permit a little rain, mostly at night of course, just enough to give the land the greenest greens this side of Ireland.
British Columbians do love their greenery, Vancouver's Stanley Park, and Butchart Gardens near Victoria, being justly famous examples of nature's collaboration with humans. But mainly they prefer wilderness parks, safe, quiet refuges for the remaining beloved wildlife, where the campers, boaters, fishermen, hikers, and skiers must behave as polite visitors. Over 300 Provincial Parks dot the landscape north to south, east to west, up on mountain plateau, down on river delta, by lake and sea, as well as six national parks, 9,000 Forestry campsites and 1,800 km of trails and canoe routes.
Naturally, all British Columbians love a legend, so Lake Okanagan's resident sea serpent, Ogopogo, occasionally appears just to add an interesting highlight to an otherwise pleasantly mundane summer boating holiday. And the possibility of encountering the elusive, hairy Sasquatch is enough to send a thrilling tingle up the spines of wilderness hikers.
Some time ago, the British Columbians heard other folk passing remarks about beautiful harbors. Some said San Francisco has the most beautiful harbor. Others named Sydney, Australia. Still others declared Rio de Janeiro, or Hong Kong to have the most beautiful harbor of all. Now, when British Columbians heard that talk, they just smiled smugly to themselves and shook their heads and thought: Ah well, those folks can't have seen Vancouver's harbor.
Maybe they do have it all in British Columbia. That's why they're so smug.