Alert Bay

Having an unexpected Sunday in town we decided to explore Alert Bay, a prospering Indian village a short ferry ride from Port McNeill with a good art museum.  It had been on my “someday” list so the alternator just moved it up to “today”.  We took the BC Ferry over and started to walk up to museum alongside a boardwalk under construction – the sturdiest boardwalk I have ever seen for foot traffic.  Last Next
The museum area is not only for historical pieces but houses an active artists group doing new work such as these totems overlooking Alert bay.

We caught one of the artists in their workshop:  Bruce Albert, a maker of these lovely bentwood boxes.  This box was on its way to the museum in Vancouver.  Bruce was on his way to London to spend about 10 days refurbishing a large totem.  He spent many years developing his craft and reputation, which makes his success today all the sweeter.

Totem poles are cut from huge cedar logs floated to the beach and then dragged up to this carving shed.  One of the ironies of this art form is that totems were quite simple in pre-contact days because of the limitations of stone tools.  Post-contact, the artists were quick to adopt steel cutting tools which greatly increased their ability to express their art, leading to the highly sculpted poles we consider “normal” today.  The resurgent west coast native art with its ovid designs we love so much is now creatively expressed in many other media.
Alert Bay is a good place to learn about the impact of Canadian and US laws passed in the late 19th century intended to supress the Indian culture.

At the left side of this image is the U’Mista museum which houses a fine collection of native art, including pieces from the infamous Christmas Potlatch which took place in this area.  BC forbid the traditional potlatches, celebrations which served political, economic, administrative and social purposes, though they still happened from time-to-time in secret until 1952.  Hearing of the Christmas 1921 potlatch the government decided on a serious crackdown, confiscating all of the artwork, masks and other goods, plus putting 45 attendees in jail.  The museum has a section this topic with letters between the tribe and BC, first-person stories and a number of the masks, coppers and other pieces that have since been returned. 

The left corner of the large brick building hosts the artists’ workshop, ironic because the building built in 1929 housed the forced boarding school, intended to eradicate the Indian culture.  Young children were removed from their homes and placed in these boarding schools to be taught modern ways, which included punishment for speaking their native languages or trying to learn anything about their own culture.  The museum has stories from forced-orphaned children, many still living since the school did not close until 1974.

This is a brief summary obviously.  Learning more about this history makes me appreciate people’s efforts to reclaim their culture and languages, and gives a hint of the challenges of fitting the best of their historic culture into the framework of today’s majority culture.

There was a regional soccer championship on the island this Sunday, lots of excited kids, families and friends, clearly more than the ferry trips handled on a normal day.  However in the pitch-in-and-help spirit of a small town the ferry crew worked hard to squeeze every vehicle aboard that would have its wheels on the deck.  Note the folks climbing out of windows to accommodate the packing.  The ferry ride back had a high energy level too.
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