Alert Bay IV: U’mista Cultural Centre

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.