Sunday, October 14, 2018

Murals and Public Art in Alert Bay

As we walked from the dock where the Sea Bird was moored to the U’mista Cultural Centre and then to the "Big House" for a dance performance, we enjoyed a wide variety of outdoor artwork in the small town of Alert Bay, B.C. We saw totem poles, wall paintings on the sides of houses and shops, wood carvings, and other decorations, including murals that were more like graffiti in modern cities than like tribal art.

The "Big House" where over 1000 people can watch ceremonies such as 21st century potlatches. We were here for
a dance performance presented to the Sea Bird passengers and a group of school children. (Blogged HERE). A few days
after our visit. the Big House was to host a very large potlatch for tribal residents of the entire area.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

What did North Coast American Indians Eat?

Salmon and fry bread -- two Native American foods served after a dance performance we watched last week in Alert Bay, B.C.
Accompanying them, our hosts from the community offered us jam made from several different fruits, as well as maple syrup.
After we attended a dance performance with refreshments at the "Big House," or Indian meeting place in Alert Bay, I thought about the foods of the British Columbia First Peoples would have eaten before European contact. Salmon, which is widely available in the seas, streams, and rivers of the area, was the most important source of nutrition for the area in the past, and was eaten fresh or was dried and traded with people who lived further from water.

In contrast to salmon, fry bread -- popular with Indian tribes throughout the US as well as here -- is made entirely from introduced European foods: wheat flour, baking powder, and fat, usually lard. The jams, which were very delicious, could be made from local native berries, but the sugar in the jam is not native. Northwest coast maple trees do produce sweet sap, which I believe the Indians used traditionally -- though I don't know whether their product was boiled down as much as modern Canadian maple syrup.

Museum reconstruction of early First Nations kitchen.
The fascinating First Nations galleries in the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria also left me curious about the hunting and gathering activities of the peoples in the area we visited. Clearly, the riches of the region were bountiful, and the people made good use of them. Though they lived in villages, they were able to live by fishing, hunting, and gathering forest products, not needing agriculture. The only domestic animals that I know of were dogs -- very interesting dogs with wooly hair useful for weaving; now extinct. Their houses, wood-carvings, totem poles, fishing gear, woven blankets, and other material goods were extremely effectively designed and manufactured. They traded with other local tribes as well as engaging in very long-distance trade with native people elsewhere in North America.

Map of our route on the Sea Bird from Seattle to Alert Bay.
The Kwakwaka'wakw, whose village we visited in Alert Bay are one of the tribes of the Salish Sea region, which spans both the US state of Washington and the Canadian province of British Columbia.

Before the Europeans, the Indian inhabitants of the region lived in villages both on the coast and in the interior. They spoke a number of different languages, but were deeply connected by trade and inter-tribal relationships, including a lingua-franca with a few hundred words all could understand. Goods were transported in large canoes made from the very tall cedar trees of the region. I was particularly fascinated to learn of the many ways the First Nations invented for taking fish. For a very complete study of this subject, see "Traditional Animal Foods of Indigenous Peoples of Northern North America," a very complete site with many links from McGill University. 

Fishing and Hunting for Whales

"Little Ike (Yurok) fishes for salmon with a plunge net at pame-kya'-ra-m,
Klamath River, California, before 1898." (source)
"Yelm Jim’s fish weir on the Puyallup River ca. 1885." (source)
Salmon fishing was one of the most important endeavors of the native people, yielding large catches that could be used immediately or preserved and traded. The people fished from shore with nets and spears, they fished from canoes in open water, and they built fish traps the width of entire streams to take the salmon during their late-winter and spring runs upstream to spawn. In the museum in Victoria we saw quite a few examples of the way the traps and nets were constructed from wood and various types of fiber.

A smaller type of fish, the eulachon, also migrates up the streams and rivers to spawn, and was a very valuable source of oil for the Indians, who still enjoy using it. A eulachon fish could be dried so that its oil was preserved, and then used as a candle -- hence its other name, the candlefish. Eulachon oil was a very important trade item. These smaller fish were caught in woven baskets. The Indians also used nets to fish from boats in the open sea, and fished with hooks and with spears. They took halibut, smelt, shell fish, and seaweed.

Cooking the fish might be done over an open fire, but the Indians also made water-proof cooking boxes from cedar and other wood. A rock heated to a high temperature in a fire could be lifted into a box with water, fish, and vegetables to be cooked. Elaborately carved boxes were used for many other purposes as well.

Modern Lummi Indians using traditional reef nets for fishing, 2013. (source)
Indians from northern California through the Canadian Provinces and up to Alaska today all fish for salmon. Some have returned to using traditional nets suspended from two canoes (see image) as well as fish traps.

Unfortunately salmon of all sorts are threatened by a number of different environmental hazards. Over a century of dam-building and other construction in and near the streams where salmon spawn have vastly reduced the number of fish, as has commercial fishing both in the streams and at sea.

Another major source of damage, especially of disease, is the salmon farms that have been built in the last 25 years. The salmon farms and many other dangers to the salmon also severely affect the population of orcas that live permanently in the region, because the local pods of orcas depend on eating salmon almost exclusively, especially chinook salmon. Weighing up to 16,000 pounds, the orcas need to eat a whole lot of salmon! (Transient orcas feed mainly on smaller marine mammals, so they are less dependent on salmon.)

The opinion of the people of Alert Bay of the salmon farms in their waters.
Whales and seals were another source of food and oil to the native people. Remarkably, whale hunters in canoes were able to spear these huge beasts. In the museum in Victoria, we saw some photos of native hunters and learned that the man who speared the whale was rewarded with the most desirable part: the heart. Beached whales were also used for food and as a source of bone for carving and tools, as were bones of other marine mammals.

Onboard the Sea Bird, we enjoyed several lectures by the Cultural Specialist Owen B Walker.
For his lecture on the First Nations and their fishing methods, he wore a traditional hat including ermine fur.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Alert Bay and the U’mista Cultural Centre

Alert Bay, a small town in British Columbia, is a cultural and social center for the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe of Canadian First People. About half the 1500 inhabitants of Alert Bay belong to the tribe. Our visit there last week was fascinating and highly informative. We began by walking along the shore from the dock to the U’mista Cultural Centre, a museum where we learned some of the history of the people and saw a magnificent collection of masks, rattles, and other ritual objects that were taken from the Kwakwaka’wakw in 1921 and recently returned.

The historic masks from  the museum collection are off-limits to photography.
The photo above shows some newly acquired art works.
Besides the remarkable collection of masks, the museum has wonderful textiles.
Screen shot of the Virtual Tour of the historic masks of the Kwakwaka'wakw, which are not allowed for museum goers' photos. To see this remarkable collection on the Cultural Center website, click HERE.
Also lost and recently found: this Chilkat blanket, made by a Tlingit noblewoman
named Anisalaga in the 1880s. The blanket disappeared after Anisalaga's death,
and was found and returned to the museum in 2014. I enjoyed looking at it.
Photo source: "Lost for generations, a blanket returns home."
From the website of the cultural center:
"The Kwakwaka'wakw (pronounced: KWOK-wok-ya-wokw) of British Columbia have built a rich culture that reflects and acknowledges the riches in our natural environment. Our songs, stories, dances, and ceremonial objects honor the animals, rivers, cedar trees, salmon, and all those things that help to sustain the Kwakwaka'wakw physically and spiritually. Since a time beyond memory, the Kwakwaka'wakw have been hosting potlatch ceremonies and potlatching continues to play a central and unifying role in community life today." (source)
The "Big House" where over 1000 people can watch ceremonies such as 21st century potlatches. 
After the museum, we came to the Big House for a dance performance presented to the Sea Bird passengers and a group of school children. A few days after our visit the Big House was to host a very large potlatch for tribal residents of the entire area. Below are my photos of the dance performance inside the Big House:

After the dancing, the hosts served us roast salmon and fry bread with delicious
jams and maple syrup. Most interesting food of the trip. The tribe is currently
fighting against salmon farms and the damage they do, so we definitely
were eating wild-caught salmon!

A Bit of Historic Background

The major cultural and economic institution of the Kwakwaka'wakw, who lived in Alert Bay and surrounding territory, was the potlatch. Before European contact, a potlatch reinforced tribal social structure, involving gift-giving, recognition of the status of chiefs and tribe members, and celebrations of life-cycle events. Although the Indians lived in villages, they did not practice agriculture, but relied on the rich resources of the seas and rivers (especially salmon and shellfish) and of the forests (especially cedar trees and forest game). The potlatch offered a method for exchanging goods -- food, weavings, and many other products -- between tribes, as well as a way for each chief to assert his rights over these resources.

After the arrival of Europeans at the end of the 18th century, the Indian population declined drastically as a result of introduced diseases and contemptuous exercises of power by the British-colonial authorities. Throughout the 19th century, potlatch ceremonies evolved, with more and more ostentatious gift giving, as well as outright destruction of goods. In 1885, at the urging of British settlers, the potlatch was outlawed, though it continued in some form for a number of years.

In 1921, after a Christmas potlatch that was considered illegal, the abusive officials confiscated -- or more accurately, they stole -- the Kwakwaka'wakw's cultural treasures from the Alert Bay Indian population. These 600 or so ritual items were first displayed in a local Anglican Church, an insult to the objects' tribal religious significance and to the tribal practice of keeping them hidden except when in ceremonial use. Subsequently, the officer in charge of Indian Affairs and the police chief sold the collection for their own profit.

Eventually, these sacred objects were dispersed to to museums and collectors in Canada and around the world. Exceptionally, in the late 20th century, legal action and moral pressure succeeded in having a substantial number of items returned to Alert Bay from major museums in Canada and the US and from some collectors. The Cultural Center was built in the 1980s to house and preserve this collection. Today, several hundred items can be viewed here.

Potlatch ceremonies resumed when the ban was lifted in 1951, and continue at present. The Kwakwaka'wakw have restored the potlatch's ancient significance as a way to reinforce tribal social and economic relationships, though the museum's items are not used in the rituals. However, many tribe members believe that these items should be returned to the original families rather than possessed collectively by the museum.

The potlatch both now and historically is a complex and frequently discussed subject, studied and documented by generations of scholars. "The events, particularly at their most extreme in the 19th century, became a staple of anthropology textbooks (which referred to the Indians as the Kwakiutl) and helped inspire Thorstein Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption." (Quote from: "Tips From the Potlatch, Where Giving Knows No Slump." Other sources: "The History of the Potlatch Collection," "Arson imperils the cultural heart of Alert Bay," "The Potlatch Ban," "Nortwest Coastal People," and the "Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest.")

One mask on display in the museum has a particularly interesting history. French writer André Breton (1896-1966) purchased it in 1964. After his death his extensive collections of tribal art were being sold, and the presence of this mask came to the attention of the people of Alert Bay from whom it had been stolen. "In 2003, his daughter, Aube Elléouët-Breton, travelled to Alert Bay to return the headdress - and make a $40,000 donation. She was greeted with a joyous celebration at the Big House." (source).

This mask, now in the collection of the U’mista Cultural Centre, was once owned by French surrealist
André Breton. Photo source: "Surrealism: Aboriginal Artwork's Long Journey Home" by Kevin Griffin.
The mask appears in this photo of Breton's study from 1968. It stands in the center, on a Northwest Coast Indian bentwood box.
I have always been fascinated by the surrealists and their interest in tribal art, and this new information is wonderful to me. (Photo source: Link)

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Desolation Sound

The morning of our last day on the National Geographic Sea Bird was rainy and gloomy. The expedition leader
decided we would wait until afternoon for a cruise on the Zodiac (or DIBS) boats. Luckily, it cleared up after lunch.
Our view from the Zodiac boat as we pulled away from the ship
Our destination was Desolation Sound Provincial Marine Park. Because the park has no hiking trails, we viewed it from
small boats on the water. Explorer George Vancouver led the first European expedition to the sound in 1792.
Unlike modern viewers, he did not see it as beautiful, but as desolate.
The kingfisher -- a very appealing bird!
We saw this river otter swim up to the bank and run into the steep, wooded hillside.

Other passengers opted for kayaking rather than watching for wildlife from the Zodiacs.
We saw this flock of mergansers fly over and land beside the cliffs.
On this tiny rock in the water: cormorants, a gull, and oyster catchers.

Oyster catchers are quite beautiful!
We saw many bald eagles on the trip.