Early this morning, National Geographic Venture continued her journey north, making her way towards today’s destination of Alert Bay on Cormorant Island. It was definitely a grey-on-grey day with shades of dark green! Very slowly, the ship cruised into Blackfish Sound, located just south of Cormorant Island. The waters were calm, and in many places, large groups of birds were very busy over what appeared to be large fish balls. Many gulls and common murres were calling and working fish balls throughout Blackfish Sound. Humpback whales were also working the same fish balls. They made very shallow dives before returning to the surface and lunging through schools of small fish.
National Geographic Venture spent the morning cruising the calm waters before beginning her journey to Government Dock in the community of Alert Bay. As we cruised a short distance north, Sharon Grainger gave a talk in the lounge on the culture, people, and art of the Northwest Coast in preparation for our visit to a well-known Indigenous community.
As lunch was served on the ship’s deck, staff were busy tying up to a small dock and preparing the gangway for our arrival. Announcements were made just after lunch, and our group headed out into town. Guests took a short walk or a shuttle north to the U’mista Cultural Center. This center was built in the 1980s and houses a very important collection of repatriated regalia that was stolen by the Canadian government in 1921. Potlatching and all Indigenous celebration was banned in Canada from the late 1800s until 1951. Once this ban was lifted, Indigenous people came out of hiding and brought their celebrations into the open. Alert Bay was the first community along the northwest coast of Canada to openly build an Interpretive center with a focus on local Indigenous culture. After a guided tour through the Potlatch Collection at the U’mista, our group made its way a short distance through the community to the Big House, where all that is Kwakwaka’wakw culture is celebrated. The Tsasala Cultural Group invited the ship’s guests to attend a brief, hour-long sharing of culture, giving our guests the chance to experience a celebration in the Big House!
Andrea Cranmer and her mother Vera Newman came forward and welcomed us into the Big House. Stories were told about recent potlatches and struggles that the Indigenous community has seen and dealt with, showing the strength that represents a Living Culture.
Many of the younger members of the Tsasala Cultural Group entered the Big House and shared their joy at being able to dance in a tradition that has lasted generations. Andrea introduced all the dancers and explained each of the dances which were part of the Cedar Bark, or the first half of a Potlatch. Then Andrea’s sister Norene came forward to explain the second half of the Potlatch, called the Peace dances. She shared an insightful explanation of the potlatch: “Each family member who potlatches hopes by the end of their lives that all the gifts they give away will come back around to them through other potlatches.” It was an explanation of the sharing of wealth that is at the core of potlatching.
All too soon, it was time to make our way back to the ship. Some guests rode back on the small bus provided by U’mista, and many others took the opportunity to enjoy a walk through town along the waterfront. The afternoon weather remained calm and warm, and patterns on the water decorated the bay in front of town as we walked back to our floating home.
Such a gift was given to us, to experience a culture from the inside and hear what it takes to maintain the joy, pride, and passion of a Living Culture. Balancing between two worlds, the Indigenous people of Alert Bay continue their hard work to give as much as they can to their children, who are considered their greatest resource. Their hope is that the future will not just be brighter but one that respects a solid cultural foundation.
The ship remained at dock until 7:00 pm. To celebrate our wonderful experience inside the Big House, several members of the Tsasala Cultural Group joined our cocktail hour and recap on the ship. Our natural history staff regaled our group about the last two days traveling in the north of the Salish Sea.