Homeland Harmony: First Nations People Keep Nuu-chah-nulth Country Pristine
It’s a chilly fall morning and noted Nuu-chah-Nulth carver Joe Martin is piloting his Lund on the glassy Clayoquot Sound, where Vancouver Island breaks apart into the Pacific.
We see eagles perched on the thick kelp beds along shorelines. “What is that eagle doing?” my wife, Molly, says. “Digging clams,” Martin quips.
We’re looking for bears this morning, and Martin knows the bears in this area as well as he knows every beach and inlet here. He knows their feeding habits and the sounds they make to send their cubs up a tree at the first hint of danger and the sounds they make to bring them back. And he knows how to watch them up-close without disturbing them.
All of this is a comfort as the bow of the skiff settles on the gravel beach. I’m sitting near the bow; some 20 feet away, a mother bear looks in my direction through near-sighted eyes and sniffs the air.
I look at Martin and whisper, “I’m glad I didn’t have the salmon for breakfast.”
For more than an hour, we watch as the mother and her two cubs turn rocks over and feast on crabs and shellfish. One cub is startled when a crab’s pincer latches onto its cheek. There’s a bit of drama when the trio goes into the next cove and finds another mother bear and two cubs there. Both mothers send their cubs up trees, and the mother bear we had been watching heads into the woods.
There’s beauty and adventure like this at every turn on Vancouver Island’s southwest coast.
Our visit to Nuu-chah-Nulth country started in Port Alberni on the Somass River.
On this warm summer day, Hupacasath and Tseshaht people are selling salmon on the Pacific Rim Highway that winds from Port Alberni through their reserves. In the Somass River, spring sockeye leap as if to gleefully announce their arrival, having completed their 25-mile journey up Alberni Inlet from the Pacific Ocean.
The Hupacasath and Tseshaht gill-net fishery is a spectator sport; people line Victoria Quay (pronounced “key”) to watch as gill-netters pull in sockeye for food and ceremonial, commercial and social purposes.
Our visit is bookended by two significant events. A healing pole—carved by Gordon Dick, Tseshaht, and Erich Glendale, Kwakwaka’wakw—was raised on the former site of the Alberni Indian Residential School, where children were subjected to an abusive campaign of assimilation from 1891 to 1973. Two months later, Dick’s representation of the First Man was raised as a territory-marker on Benson Island, the site of Tseshaht’s creation story.
A visitor might feel that although much has changed here, so much remains the same. That’s underscored by personal experiences. Along Victoria Quay in Port Alberni, visitors watch the seasons change in dramatic fashion. Even in June, there is snow on the low coastal mountains. In fall, residents and visitors will sit along the quay and watch black bears gambol across the river, feeding on berries and spawned-out chinook salmon.
The river is a symbol of continuity in a changing world—it’s a center of activity, a marine highway, a bounty of resources, much as it has always been.
At Victoria Quay, where the Pacific Rim Highway turns north along the Somass River, tall cedar Hupacasath welcome figures hold out their hands in friendship. Next to them is a 30-foot diorama carved in yellow cedar that captures the action and drama of a whale hunt. The sculpture was designed by Lionel Thomas and carved by Douglas Cranmer and Godfrey Hunt. The eight whalers in the canoe are modeled after real-life Nuu-chah-nulth.
Along the highway, traditional place-names share signage with English-language place names. Roger Creek is maatsit. Kitsuksis Creek is kicaqsuis.
The Somass River leads to 9,300-acre Sproat Lake. Hupacasath ancestors left a record of their lives here in the park’s most significant feature, a lakeshore panel of petroglyphs called k’ak’awin.
North on the Tseshaht First Nation reserve, artist/carver Dick’s Ahtsik Native Art Gallery represents more than 40 artists from 14 indigenous nations.
Hupacasath and Tseshaht are economic forces in the region, and their presence is visible along the Pacific Rim Highway in and outside of their territories. The Hupacasath and Ucluelet First Nations are partners in Upnit Power Corporation, a hydroelectric project on China Creek that generates electricity for 6,000 homes. Hupacasath is an owner of Eagle Rock Materials and a partner with other First Nations and regional governments in a Vancouver Island transportation railway project.
Tseshaht owns and manages land for commercial, cultural, recreational and residential purposes. It owns the Tseshaht Market Food & Gas Bar, Equis Forest Products Limited, and Tsemac Manufacturing Ltd. It manages a sustainable forestry plan on its reserve, and has a forest range agreement with the Province of British Columbia.
The First Nations know well the impacts of unabated forestry. Old-growth forests disappeared in less than 100 years, and this stretch of highway from the Alberni Valley to Tofino was a clearcut swath in the 1990s. The Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation prevented culturally sensitive Meares Island, near Tofino, from being logged in the mid-1980s by asserting that ownership of land in Tla-o-qui-aht territory had never been negotiated in treaties and therefore remains under Tla-o-qui-aht ownership.
Tla-o-qui-aht and 13 other Nuu-chah-nulth nations are pushing for sensitive stewardship of lands in their territories: no clear-cut logging and industrial mining, but low-impact eco-tourism, habitat restoration, and carefully controlled run-of-river energy generation. Tla-o-qui-aht’s enterprises include Canoe Creek Hydro plant, the Tin Wis Tofino Hotel Resort and a park system.
When you arrive in Tla-o-qui-aht territory, a good first stop is the Wickanninish Interpretive Centre at Long Beach; the centre is managed by Parks Canada and is part of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. Parks Canada recently invested $1.7 million in updating it, and a Nuu-chah-nulth Working Group helped guide the development of displays that showcase the cultural and natural history of the region. The centre also has a gift shop and a restaurant—all with beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean.
In the gift shop, you’ll find art, books and traditional hand-made cedar clothing, as well as contemporary art with traditional influence: A Surf Nations pullover and hoodie features a surfer, drawn in Northwest Coast Native style, riding a wave. In the background are a forested shoreline, a snow-capped peak and a Northwest Coast Native-style sun.
Just as the abundance of this environment has sustained people since creation, its beauty inspires the artist’s imagination. At Eagles Aerie Gallery in Tofino, we buy a reproduction of Roy Henry Vickers’ “A Chief’s Dream” and display it in our beachfront room at the Long Beach Lodge. As the sun sets that evening, we see that the colors of the sky are mirrored in Vickers’ work.
The next morning, we meet Joe Martin for a ride in his Lund on Clayoquot Sound (Clay-o-quot is an Anglicized version of Tla-o-qui-aht). Martin, a Tla-o-qui-aht artist and carver, restored the prow of a canoe depicted in Vickers’ “The Westcoasters.”
Martin’s daughter, Giselle, leads Tla-ook Cultural Adventures. We meet her in Tofino for an excursion to Meares Island. We board Sasit-qwa-ees, a 34-foot, 10-man whaling canoe carved by her father. This is a masterfully built, well-balanced canoe.
“Sasit-qwa-ees” means hummingbird. On this early afternoon, there are only four of us to take up paddles, but true to its name the canoe glides like a bird to our destination.
Meares Island was the center of world attention in 1984, when the Nuu-chah-nulth people protested against MacMillan Bloedel’s plans to log the island’s old-growth forest. As Gisele explains, the Nuu-chah-nulth people own this land. The Nuu-chah-nulth people and environmental groups blockaded the island, and courts ultimately ruled in favor of the Nuu-chah-nulth people.
Gisele knows this island and, like the life it hosts, she is in constant motion: on a hike, she can show you where fiber for weaving had been removed from an old cedar, point out which plant is food and which plant is medicine, identify a bird by its call, and still not miss a raft of frog eggs in a small pool.
This is her forum, her opportunity to teach how to live in this place and how to live with others. This is her opportunity to dispel misconceptions about First Nations people. “Being out there, I love it,” she said. “I meet all these people, get all these questions, it’s a huge learning opportunity for them. And it’s an honor for me. People want to come and learn about the culture and learn our side of the story.”
Thousands of people a year take her tour, and they all leave better educated about Nuu-chah-nulth culture and the fragile environment that has sustained them since the beginning.