Early this morning National Geographic Venture arrived at the Government Dock on Cormorant Island in the community of Alert Bay. It was extremely calm, not a breath of wind and high clouds moving in slowly from the north. After the gangway was lowered and secured, everyone onboard made their way down the dock and walked a short distance to the Namgis traditional burial grounds. We were greeted by Trevor Issac from the U’mista Cultural Center. The ‘Namgis original burial grounds is more than one hundred years in age and is the ancestral burial grounds that have been located on Cormorant Island for many generations. Trevor presented much information about totem pole commemorating deceased members of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation. Figures on the poles depict family crests and these were the bulk of the questions many of us had for Trevor. He went into much detail about the origin of crests and how families trace their ancestry through those crests.
From the burial grounds, we could either walk the one mile to the U’mista Cultural Center or take one of two small vans to the center. The U’mista Cultural Center was established in the early 1980s. It houses an exceptional collection of traditional and ceremonial masks and artifacts all vital regalia for the Potlatch. This system of governance and ceremony has been the central foundation of the cultural lives for the people of the Northwest Coast for thousands of years. After seeing the Potlatch collection, we saw a short film about the continuum of potlatching. Afterwards we were introduced to Chief Bill Cranmer who leads the Board of Directors for the U’mista Cultural Center. Born and raised in Alert Bay he has spent nearly all of his eighty years involved in many central issues of the lives of his people. He has spent much of his life fighting for the retention of Indigenous languages throughout British Columbia. A quiet man but fiercely observant he stepped forward and gave just a glimpse into the life and value of elders in the world of Indigenous peoples. Bill answered many questions, opening our eyes to the current issues faced by Indigenous peoples up and down the Northwest Coast.