The World’s tallest totem pole is located at the northern end of Cormorant Island next to the Big House. This pole stands 173 feet tall and unlike most totem poles which are specific to one family the figures on this pole represent some of the tribes of the Kwakwaka’wakw. From the top down are the following figures:
- Sun Man: crest of the Quatsino tribes
- Kolus: crest of the Kwagu
- Whale: crest of the Gwa’sala-‘Nak’waxda’xw
- Old Man: crest of Turnour Island
- Wolf: crest of the Dzawada’enux
- Thunderbird: ‘Namgis tribe
- Dzunukwa: crest of the Mamalilikala
- Bear holding a salmon, a raven and a Dzunukwa holding a copper. Continue reading Alert Bay V: The World’s Tallest Totem Pole
The Meaning of U’mista
In earlier days people were sometimes taken captive by raiding parties. When they returned home, either through payment of a ransom or by a retaliatory raid, they are said to have “u’mista”. The return of treasures from distant museums is a form of u’mista.
U’mista Cultural Centre is one of the longest-operating and most successful First Nations cultural facilities in BC, founded in 1980 as a ground breaking project and houses one of the finest collections of elaborately carved masks, depicting the Potlatch Ceremony of the Kwakwaka’wakw. It is now a modern museum and education centre in Alert Bay with an extensive art gallery.
The Potlatch Ceremony
Was a gathering which served to validate important events such as the naming of children, marriage, death and the exchanging of rights and privileges. (A Copper documented important events and transactions engaged in during the life of its owner and symbolised wealth. It increased in value every time it changed hands).
The ceremony was first outlawed in Canada between 1885 and 1951. The masks and other regalia that you see in the cultural centre were all confiscated after an illegal potlatch in 1921. After the ban was lifted, the Kwakwaka’wakw people fought for decades for the return of their sacred regalia that had ended up in museum and private collections around the world.
The design on the front of the centre is based on ‘Namgis Chief Tlakwudlas’ Big House c 1873 and depicts a Thunderbird and a Killer Whale.
Long ago when the world was young, after the great flood, a giant halibut (so big you could stand on it) lived at Xwalkw (the mouth of the Nimpkish River). One day he swam ashore and transformed himself into a human. He built a house and made huge beams to be placed on top of the vertical poles, but he was unable to lift them into place. As he worried about his problem he heard a noise and turned around to see a Thunderbird alight on a huge rock.
This supernatural bird offered assistance and grasping a beam in its talons, flew into the sky and put the beam in position. Then he descended and removed the Thunderbird mask and costume and ordered them into the sky saying “You shall never flap your great wings to cause thunder, nor flash your great eyes to cause lightning, only when death comes upon a prince or princess of my descendants.”
He then announced that he would be the brother of the first man and began to build a house for himself. This is why the ‘Namgis have the right to display the Thunderbird and the Halibut as their crests.
One of the attractions of visiting Alert Bay on Cormorant Island is to go out on the water to look for pods of Orcinus orca (killer whales) that are regular visitors in the waters around Alert Bay from June to October. The other is that Alert Bay is a rare and remarkable aboriginal cultural destination, steeped in history, natural beauty and living tradition. The ‘Namgis peoples, a First Nations band within the larger Kwakwaka’wakw nation of northern Vancouver Island live here on a slice of territorial lands traditionally known as ‘Yalis. It is a very interesting island to visit and well worth the long trip up the mainland to reach it.
A visit to the impressive U’mista Cultural Centre is a ‘must-do’ as well as seeing the world’s largest totem pole and a roadside First Nations’ graveyard filled with totem and memorial poles.
The burial ground in Alert Bay contains memorial totem poles marking the graves of members of the Kwakwaka’wakw. Figures on the poles depict family crests. The one at the top signifies the most important family symbol. The figures represented on the totem poles are those from mythology who became, or were encountered by, ancestors of the group who later took them as their crests. The Kwakwaka’wakw families claim the Thunderbird as a crest. He descended from the sky and became human. The raising of a totem pole was usually accompanied by a potlatch.
Figures featured on the poles include the eagle, raven, frog, killer whale (orca), grizzly bear, thunderbird, beaver, dogfish, salmon, wolf and Dzunukwa, a fearsome giantess of the dark forest. She is always painted in black with half-closed eyes and pursed lips.
After a fun afternoon exploring Telegraph Cove we headed back to the 19 and on towards Port McNeil where we got the 40 minute ferry ride across to Alert Bay. It is an important fishing community and has been the traditional home to the ‘Namgis First Nation for thousands of years. It was named by Captain G H Richards of the Royal Navy in 1860 after HMS Alert, a screw corvette serving on the Pacific station at the time. We stayed in a small cabin right on the water’s edge with stunning sunset views back towards the mainland, and a deck where we could watch the fishing boats and whale watching boats coming in and spot herons and cormorants.
We had booked a whale trip for the Monday, but meanwhile had the whole island to explore. The weather wasn’t all that great – lots of fog and mist – but there was still a lot to see and do. Even spending a couple of hours photographing the beach for flotsam and jetsam was huge fun. We had great baked oysters with spinach and parmesan for dinner on Saturday although finding somewhere to dine on the Sunday was rather more challenging. The boat trip was brilliant even though it was so foggy that we could barely make out the pod of orcas we were following plus they were so quick leaping out of the water that most of our photos showed absolutely nothing at worst and the tip of a fin at best! But listening to them communicating with each other was the best.