Black Fish Sound & Alert Bay

Oct 22, 2018 - National Geographic Sea Bird


The constellation Orion was still visible in the sky as National Geographic Sea Bird entered Black Fish Sound, a body of water that runs along the mainland of British Columbia inside Johnstone Strait. The sun began rising in the east just after 8 a.m. on another clear, fall day. Looking all around National Geographic Sea Bird in every direction one could spot humpback whales. The air wasfilled with the sound of common murres who landed on the sea around our ship and then dove rapidly out of the way. All kinds of wildlife were feeding in the rich waters of this sound. The humpbacks were lunging across the surface, taking in huge gulps of water and small fish. The murres were catching the same small fish one at a time. To add to the experience, the long shadows of fall light were gorgeous! Backlit whale blows, diving birds, and distant mountains all showed off the beauty of this place.

In late morning, we began our transit toward Alert Bay where we were hosted by the ‘Namgis band of the Kwakwaka’wakw people. Upon arriving and checking with the port captain, we were informed that a totem pole was being completed for an up-and-coming potlatch. We were divided into several small groups to enjoy walks through the village. One group made their way to a makeshift carving shed where a nearly completed totem pole was being designed for form-line and painting. A crew of 10 carvers and painters were busy as we arrived. Wayne Alfred, one of the master carvers of Alert Bay, introduced us to the team and explained the process.

We reconvened in the late afternoon at the U’mista Cultural Centre. We were greeted by one of the directors of the center, Sarah Holland, who introduced the many galleries and then guided everyone to the potlatch collection, housed in the lower area of the cultural center. This was excellent preparation for the visit to the community Big House. As the late fall light began to move toward sunset, we entered a building made almost entirely of western redcedar. The two horizontal beams running the length of the house are the only two large pieces of wood that are not cedar—they’re Douglas fir. At the time of the construction of the Big House, in 1998, there were few western redcedars, and certainly none long and thick enough to go the length of this reconstructed house.

The central fire was lit. The sand and dirt floor was covered in eagle down from a recent potlatch. Upon entering the front door, we were greeted by two elders from the T’sasala Cultural Group. During the next hour and a half, we experienced what the Kwakwaka’wakw people call cultural sharing. A variety of dances were introduced by many members of the group, each taking a moment to explain in their own words the importance, personally and cross-culturally, of being invited into a traditional Big House. As one young chief said, “Our lives are very similar to yours, until we enter the Big House. Then our lives are filled with the depth and richness that is Northwest Coast Indigenous culture and lifestyle.” For this young Kwakwaka’wakw chief, the cultural sharing was about the “cultural understanding, openness, and a hopeful change of really seeing a people, (that) happens one person at a time.”

We then found ourselves dancing in a circle around the central fire and celebrating the resilience of this vibrant group of people. As is the custom in the Big House, guests never go hungry! We shared a lovely spread of freshly barbecued sockeye salmon and banoc with homemade jams from the area, then reluctantly made our way through town, back to the waiting National Geographic Sea Bird.

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About the Author

Sharon Grainger

Naturalist/Certified Photo Instructor

Sharon’s degrees in psychology and anthropology from Eastern Washington University have given her a good base to pursue her profession as a naturalist and photographer. She has developed a portfolio of images encompassing her many interests, including photographs from travel, herbal medicine, ethnobotany, indigenous cultures, and natural and cultural history.

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