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(2020 - Spring Issue)


Rays of sunlight penetrate an old-growth forest near Bamfield on Vancouver Island’s west coast. Spruce, hemlock and cedar trees are bathed in the soft morning light as is a lush understory of ferns and salal.

Many visitors to this rugged coastline come for the great outdoor adventure, perhaps to kayak around the Broken Group Islands in Barkley Sound, part of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, or to challenge the waves near Tofino, Canada’s surf capital.

I have come for adventure too, but of a different sort. I want to see this coast through the eyes of the Nuu-chah-nulth, the Indigenous people whose ancestors welcomed the great British explorer Captain Cook nearly 250 years ago, and who still maintain a rich culture, despite the challenges endured ever since.

Today, 14 First Nations are part of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, including the Huu-ay-aht in the tiny town of Bamfield. I’m excited to be one of the first people to visit their traditional village site since it opened to the public in 2017 after being designated a National Historic Site in 1999.

The Huu-ay-aht abandoned Kiixin Village and Fortress sometime in the 1800s but archaeological evidence, archival records and oral history indicate the area was occupied for over five millennia.

Out of more than 100 former First Nations village sites in southern British Columbia, Kiixin (pronounced kee-hin) is the only one to retain significant First Nations architecture.

A Huu-ay-aht descendent named Wisqii (pronounced Wish-key) leads my small group of culture seekers interested in First Nations history through the forest. Wearing a traditional cedar hat and carrying a wooden walking stick, Wisqii points out “culturally modified” cedars, which are trees that were used by his people.

“This one here, it’s burned out, it’s kind of etched out, probably with hand tools,” he explains, adding these trees demonstrate how the Huu-ay-aht have lived here for generations.

Before long we hear the rumble of the ocean and soon we emerge at a secluded beach with no one there but us.

At the edge of the forest are remains of longhouses from the 19th century. Slowly decaying as the forest reclaims this site, it’s hard to imagine this serene spot as a vibrant village, noisy with the activities of daily life. Wisqii, who is a Traditional Knowledge Holder—someone who has learned the history and culture of their people and can share it with others—becomes animated when he stands under the imposing entrance of what was probably the chief’s longhouse.

“So as you can see from the size, it’s quite a big house. I can imagine over the centuries there were probably many ceremonies and potlatches that went on here,” he says.

Kneeling on the forest floor, Wisqii retrieves an old whalebone and explains that centuries ago his ancestors gradually turned to the dangerous work of whaling after tsunamis repeatedly destroyed fish habitat.

“All you’ve got is an eight-man dugout canoe and ... all the tools are handmade,” he says. “The harpoon shaft was from yew wood, the harpoon head from a giant mussel shell … all bound together by cedar rope.”

A couple of days later I’m reminded of Wisqii’s story of how Indigenous people made everything needed by hand, including canoes, when I climb into a dugout canoe myself. This one was hand-carved from a single red cedar by a local master carver and is now being used for half-day Nuu-chah-nulth cultural tours by T’ashii Paddle School, one of the few businesses in Tofino with Indigenous roots.

Unlike two-person canoes, this one isn’t tippy, not even when we enter a narrow channel with choppy water. Leaving behind the houseboats and docks of Tofino’s bustling harbour, we see only solid green islands and mountains receding into the distance.

Seven of us paddle while Thomas Zarelli, our young Indigenous guide, steers from the stern, telling stories and singing all the while. He seems like a happy man, his songs uplifting, especially when he breaks into what he calls his family’s paddle song.

“If we were going into another territory, we would sing that song,” he explains. “Sound travels a long way over water so people could identify which family was coming to visit.”

Reaching Meares Island we tie up underneath a cedar, its fragrant branches swooping down to the shoreline. A boardwalk leads us through a forest with some of the largest trees on the planet, including some thousand-year-old western red cedars. Some are so massive that it takes a dozen or more people to encircle a tree, their arms outstretched around it.

We take turns resting against their rough trunks or climbing onto a low branch to make sense of their enormous size. Some trunks are twisted and bent with age, but all the more interesting because of it. Standing next to them we look and feel tiny, like a painting where the artist has messed up the scale. It’s humbling to think that even in their advanced age, they’ll outlive us.

Mostly, we feel fortunate to walk amongst these giants. Thomas beats his drum and sings another song in his deep, warm voice.

Listening and watching, I have to wonder, which is older, the song or the tree?

The revival in Aboriginal carving isn’t limited to canoes. That night I check into Wya Point Resort near the town of Ucluelet and come face-to-face with some larger-than-life-size creatures.

The resort was built by the local Yuu-cluth-aht, another Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation and is a collection of nine architect-designed lodges with rustic post-and-beam construction and Indigenous artwork.

At the lodge entrance are two carved poles, one with a stylized raven glaring down at me. In First Nations mythology, the raven is a powerful trickster and a prominent character in creation stories. Sitting beneath the raven, another creature bares its teeth and tongue while clenching a frog to its chest.

Looking through the floor-to-ceiling windows I can see Ucluth Beach, the Yuu-cluth-aht First Nations traditional summer village site and I’m reminded of Kiixin, the ancient village site of the Huu-ay-aht, where I began my journey a few days earlier.

Meeting Nuu-chah-nulth people, hearing their stories and especially their songs, has given me a new appreciation for their history and their resilience. It’s gratifying to know their culture has survived, just like the trees on Meares Island.

Travel Planner

To visit Kiixin, you must go on a guided tour (free of charge). Advanced reservations by phone (250-735-3432) or email info@kiixin.ca. For more information see kiixin.ca

The Meares Island Canoe Tour runs daily from spring through fall: tofinopaddle.com or phone 250-266-3787

Wya Point Resort: wyapoint.com

For more information on Aboriginal tourism visit Indigenous Tourism BC indigenousbc.com

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