Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Adventures in British Columbia - July 18th

Saturday, July 18th
Saturday morning we made one last trip down to the dock, this time hauling our suitcases to be stowed aboard the launch “Hurst Isle” for the trip back to Port Hardy. Once again the day was cool and grey, and the water was an undulant grey mirror that we skimmed across. While our traveling companions dragged luggage up the ramp to the pier I jogged back the four blocks to the motel to pick up the rental car waiting for us in the parking lot.
I transferred luggage to the motel and then took our friends to the Port Hardy airport to pick up a second rental car. We drove in two cars to Port McNeill to catch walk-on ferry to Cormorant Island and the town of Alert Bay.
We ambled along the waterfront street passing a well-used marina occupied by many motorboats and a few sailboats. Several ancient wooden trawlers lolled at odd angles on the rocky beach, most of their paint gone and widening gaps showing between the planks of their hulls. A cedar log at least five feet thick lay in a grass covered empty lot, showing ax-chopped holes where spring boards had been wedged in on opposite sides to provide a place for loggers to stand while sawing down the tree.
Newer cedar logs with the bark carefully removed lay near the First Nations Cultural Center, waiting to be shaped into carved poles honoring the different clans who live here. Completed totem poles had been erected near the entrance to the museum.
After exploring the cultural center we walked up the hill behind it past a decaying old three story brick building that for many years was a residential school where children were placed after being taken from their parents at age six. They were taught to speak English only, and punished if they spoke in their own tongue. By the time they had finished at least six years, it was thought that they would be fully absorbed into proper Canadian culture, and were released. Today the building is being used for offices, and there is a workshop in the basement for indigenous woodcarving.
The Big House, a very large cedar sided meeting center with a low pitched roof built by the First Nations people sits high on a hill behind the harbor. Standing far out in front was the tallest totem pole I have ever seen, probably more than one hundred feet high. The traditional figures of turtle, bear, raven, salmon, eagle, moon, sun were clearly visible on the lower parts of the pole, but it was so tall that it was hard to identify the faces near the top. At the very highest point on the pole sat a real eagle, surveying the world from his lofty perch.
We entered the meeting house through the wide front door. The inside, perhaps sixty feet wide and twice as long, was a single large room with a dirt floor and long tiered benches along each side. Parallel cedar log ridgepoles three feet in diameter spanned the entire length of the room, supporting the rafters of smaller logs. The center of the roof opened into a large rectangular cupola where the smoke from the fire burning in the middle of the room found exit.
We took seats on the side benches, and when a good crowd had gathered the performance began. Flanking the door were two winged totems depicting ravens and at the opposite end of the room two eagle totems kept watch over the single bench that faced the fire. Seated at that bench were several young people whose job it was to sing the tribal chants and keep time by pounding with short heavy sticks on a long hollowed out wooden log drum. Dancers ranging in age from four or five years old to adult demonstrated parts of the ceremonies performed to mark seasons, harvest, and fishing. It was gratifying to see that the language, the culture, and the customs of the people were experiencing a rebirth and growth in the younger people.

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