Johnstone Strait & Alert Bay

May 13, 2019 - National Geographic Sea Bird

Exploring the islands and ocean waters inhabited by the Kwak’waka’wak people offered both unsettling historical and heartwarming contemporary stories to contemplate. This morning’s dark mountains draped with low clouds brought us (finally out of the sunshine!) into the mystic beauty of the temperate rainforest realm. The bow watchers were rewarded with seabird sightings and a group of Dall’s porpoises throwing rooster tails of spray as they sped past.

Up in Knight’s Inlet, we maneuvered near Village Island and had the rare chance to see the village site of Mamallilculla. A set of ancient house posts still stands where the village faced the sea, and the white shell beach gives the site away, as it was formed from clamshells tossed out the front doors of the red cedar houses. Village Island is where the central story of the U’mista Potlatch Collection originates. In 1922, Chief Dan Cranmer’s potlatch was raided. All the regalia was taken from its owners and the 45 participants were sent to jail for practicing their traditions. The precious carved masks passed on for generations were sold to private collectors and given to museums.

Our afternoon ashore in the village of Alert Bay was delightful in every way. The townsfolk were friendly as we strolled the waterfront to the U’mista Cultural Centre. Inside the Potlatch Collection, our guide shared some of the mythology the re-patriated regalia represents, and how the pieces were danced at the great winter gatherings up and down this coast. Up the hill at the Big House, a group of dedicated young dancers and their teachers and mentors showed us some of the traditional dances taught in the local school. The values of protecting and caring for the land and sea and air are also being passed on to this next generation, in word and in deed. Their passion for the work of helping this culture evolve, was embodied in a three-year-old hamatsa dancer. He stole every heart and made us aware of the value and importance of keeping our natural systems intact.

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About the Author

Bette Lu Krause


Bette Lu's adventurous spirit has taken her around the world by sea — those adventures include tramping about the oceans on old break-bulk freighters, navigating the South Pacific Ocean and on to Antarctica on research vessels as well as several seasons in the Alaskan arctic dodging icebergs in the Beaufort Sea.

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