Carving Out Tradition in Canada

Experience native culture and winderness on Lush Vancouver Island.
By Maja Groff
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Mythical thunderbirds stare down from atop contemporary totem poles. Bear-men stretch out laterally on aromatic bent-wood boxes. Brightly painted sea eagles lick the waves from the prows of hand-carved cedar canoes. The artistry of North America's Pacific Coastal native peoples is a marvel. Here, on the far reaches of the continent, a singular tradition of ceremonial feasting and an abundance of pliable, fragrant cedar wood have given rise to a vigorous tradition of dramatic carving that is unique on the globe.

Among the most renowned carvers and feast-throwers of the Pacific Northwest are the Kwakwaka'wakw people (pronounced "kwa-kwak-QUEY-wak" and previously mis-named as the "Kwakiutl"), a group of linguistically related tribes that inhabit the wild and under-visited northern tip of Vancouver Island. This 270 mile (434 km)-long forested raft of Canadian land is but a vista (and a one-and-a-half hour ferry-ride) away from Canada's British Columbian mainland and the pulsing urban center of Vancouver. Its charms include several mountain ranges, limestone caves, waterfalls, endless beaches of fine gray sand, and cathedral-like old-growth stands of trees: some of the colder, wetter, yet most remarkable of these are on Vancouver Island's northern half.
A Tour of the Island
Raingear in hand, begin your Vancouver Island journey in the mid-sized fishing and logging town of Campbell River. From here take a ten-minute ferry ride to a magical islet called Quadra, where calm pastoral landscapes mix with striking, moss-covered coniferous groves. On Quadra there is hiking aplenty (mostly relaxing day-hikes on seaside terrain) and the Kwakwaka'wakw village of Cape Mudge, home to one of two extraordinary museums-cum-cultural centers found on the North Island. The Kwagiulth Museum houses a spectacular and haunting collection of regalia (masks, button blankets, cedar clothing, rattles, and drums) that was confiscated by the government early this century and not returned until 1988. Two-and-a-half hours north of Campbell River lie the communities of Port Hardy and Port McNeill; aim for these and then side-step to Kwakwaka'wakw communities nearby. Alert Bay is accessible by ferry from the latter town, and houses the North Island's second cultural center, U'mista, the proud and living testimony to the difficult history of the potlatch (a ceremonial feast featuring masks, legends, and gift-giving outlawed for the first half of this century) and its enduring presence in the lives of local Kwakwaka'wakw. U'mista, literally "homecoming of a loved one taken captive by raiding parties," contains original potlatching masks that were confiscated by the Canadian government, and its annex shelters an active carving shed. Totem poles, old and new, dot the Alert Bay landscape.

Fort Rupert village is the beach-blessed Kwakwaka'wakw center ten minutes from Port Hardy. Here, a traditional cedar bighouse and brazen totem poles overlook windy sand-dunes that gently fall into the movement of ancient tides. Kayak in Fort Rupert's open bay with seals, porpoises, and loons, among mythically charged mini-islands. The handful of islands in the bay are covered by a white carpet of shell middens, the garbage-heaps of clam-eating Kwakwaka'wakw ancestors. Or, stroll away from the sea up to the Copper Maker Gallery, the much-loved workplace of local carvers and a good starting point for seeking out artisanal treasures.

If your imagination still needs more room to stretch, head further to the wilderness abode that guards Vancouver Island's northern tip, Cape Scott Provincial Park. It is here on the island's northwestern-most finger, on an elegant neck of sand, that a mythical Kwakwaka'wakw ancestor is said to have roamed. Cougars, wolves, and black bears also haunt these woods and the six or so gray-sand beaches that grace a supernaturally beautiful and isolated park.

Published: 25 Jul 2001 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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