Lydia Chaverin McKenzie and her husband Patrick, on their 50’ sailboat, Tenacious, are sailing north along the Inside Passage in British Columbia.

As we sail north along the east coast of Vancouver Island, we planned to visit the U’mista Cultural Center, a First Nation museum with the mission to ensure the survival of all aspects of the cultural heritage of the Kwakwaka’wakw people.

We docked in a pouring rain, and a kind soul gave us a ride to the U’mista. We learned that the word ‘u’mista’ means “returned to us,” the way that captured tribe members might be ransomed or returned home after capture. In the case of the U’mista, the name describes the return of cultural treasures that were confiscated during the 1920s, when they were sent or sold to various museums and private collectors, and finally returned in recent times.

We took our time studying the collection. Beautiful patterned baskets woven so tightly that they would hold water, a vegetable-dyed fringed blanket woven of beaten cedar bark and mountain goat hair, petroglyphs with strange symbols painstakingly pecked out on the surface of a huge boulder and rare, and carved ceremonial rattles and whistles that are almost never seen except by initiates were dramatically displayed. The museum itself is a work of art, designed on the concept of a traditional Kwakwaka’wakw Big House, and built of around a superstructure of huge peeled cedar logs.

Most impressive and intriguing though, was the Potlatch Collection. The word ‘potlatch’ comes from Chinook, a trade pidgin language that was used along the Pacific coast. It means, “to give.” A potlatch was given to mark a significant occasion such as a naming ceremony, marriage or mourning rites. A potlatch could last for days or even weeks of feasting and dancing. Guests were given gifts by the host, and the more generous the gifts, the more status was conferred upon the giver. At the potlatch, the songs and dances belonging to the Chief were performed, keeping the ancient stories and culture alive.

Some of the most treasured potlatch regalia are the symbolic carved wooden masks worn by the dancers. They depict mythical and supernatural creatures such as the Thunderbird, the Chief of the Ghosts, the Wolf, Eagle, Raven, Killer Whale and many more. They are hand-made, colorfully painted, and decorated with shredded cedar bark, fur, feathers and cloth.

Some have moving parts that can be manipulated by the dancers who wear them; beaks or mouths that open, wings that flap, or transformation masks that open and close to reveal two different characters. The masks represent the mythical characters in the stories of this rich culture, the dancers who wear them act those stories out. They are at the heart of the U’mista’s Potlatch Collection, and when we finally had to leave, I was still in thrall to the mystical culture that had created the beautiful wooden masks that had been worn by so many generations of dancers.

We had heard that native carvers still worked in Alert Bay, and as we started to walk back along the log-strewn waterfront toward the ferry dock, I was thrilled to see two men who appeared to be of First Nations descent, standing near a huge, tide-smoothed cedar log, not far from the museum. Native carvers! How interesting to get to talk to them about their work!

The log they were working on was so big around it would have taken two adults to get their arms all the way around it, and I could see that several large round sections of the log had already been cut and lay at the feet of the men.

We approached them respectfully, waited a moment for a break in their conversation, then I greeted them, saying, “What a magnificent piece of wood this is!” They looked at me and nodded. I was intensely curious about the artistic use to which they would put this fallen forest giant. Would a section become one of the masks such as the one we had just seen? I respectfully asked, “What will you make from this wonderful cedar?” My question seemed to give them pause. My heart stopped at their hesitation. Perhaps I was out of line to ask about their artistic intentions! Had I committed some unforgivable cultural gaffe? Finally, one of the men looked obliquely at the other, shrugged, and turned back to me. “Firewood,” he said.

I thanked them, and we continued along the shore road back to the ferry. Patrick had the good grace not to laugh until we were most of the way there.

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