Spirit & Competition Unites BC First Nations and Island

Kin Hut Park, located at Departure Bay in Nanaimo, was the site where all First Nations from the northern half of Vancouver Island were to gather on Saturday, July 26, 2008. As the first leg of a three-part journey, the historic local event was called "Portals to Our Heritage.” In the meantime, the second contingent from the southern half of the island converged in Duncan. Both groups were headed for Duncan for the opening ceremonies of the Indigenous Games set for the next weekend.

Bob Kuhn, local manager of Cultural Capital of Canada, i.e. a federal initiative partnered with the City of Nanaimo, sponsored the event. Meanwhile, Geraldine Manson, of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, organized the activities. Over and above the splendid feast, the day was planned around three focuses, i.e. tribal journeys, unveiling the portal and the spirit totem pole.

The tribal journeys began from the northern tip of the island with the contingent numbers swelling as they made their way down the coast. Twenty odd nations were expected to land that day. The leg to Nanaimo took many days paddling for those who traveled from the far north. Two smaller canoes had traveled from Alberta. Each nation was represented by a splendid war canoe, manned by a host of "pullers” who included women. Various designs, specific to their nation, flags and traditional head dress made for a colourful display of community, history and celebration.

Spirits ran high as the first of the canoes reached shallow waters just off shore. As more gathered, pullers splashed each other with their oars and bantered with their historic enemies, now turned comrades and extended family. The substantial crowd of relatives (young and old), supporters, First Nations elders and members, organizers, vendors and leaders plus citizens from the region watched and cheered from shore. The few minutes spent in excited anticipation of the landing became an awesome bubble of suspended time that was steeped in Spirit. Just as the canoes landed, a light cleansing rain began to fall. It was as if the heavens were watching and blessed the healing journey canoes and their wards. They were greeted and blessed, (four at a time in honour of the winds of the universe) by Ellen White, Spiritual Elder from the Coast Salish tribes. Many loved ones and strangers cried as they came together under the banner of tradition, fellowship and healing. Elder White shared the love-filled sentiment, "We’re not here to war. We’re here to celebrate.”

The philosophy and purpose of the great sojourn rests on a platform of healing. The "sober journey” binds both men and women to a pledge of abstinence of alcohol and smoking. It is meant as a physical, emotional and psychological challenge that ultimately cleanses the puller and builds solidarity in the community.

"It all goes back to the Potlatch when people came as far away as the Arctic,” Elder White commented. "They come in on the high tide. Potlatch would last all night; sometimes 2 days.” The meaning and purpose of the current ceremony was, "Healing and spreading the word about how it was hundreds of years ago.”

An awesome banquet, including barbequed salmon, was prepared and ready for the First Nations’ contingent. Especially for hungry pullers, the timing was perfect and everyone chowed down with ample servings of food. There was just enough time to sit on the grass with family and other loved ones to eat and chat a bit.

Then a velvety voice, sweet and gentle, along with a compelling native drum beat wafted through the air. It was the sound of Tom Jones, Snuneymuxw First Nations drummer and sublime singer/chanter, which announced that it was time to gather for the unveiling of the portal.

The native-designed and carved portal stood, still veiled, as a huge centerpiece on the grounds while native dancing and speeches took place. The crowd was treated to a sacred, un-photographable dance and sacred song that was followed by a blessing and a celebrations dance. As an inaugural event in history the portal was set in place to celebrate the coming together of all nations in British Columbia. The orientation of the work of art and monument is toward Newcastle Island where bones of ancestors are buried under the Sacred Rocks. Similar to various ancient monuments found around the world, the portal also faces the rising sun. Its purpose is to be a visible monument for sighting and welcoming in future gatherings.

Finally, the towering portal was unveiled. The native carvers, James Johnny and son James, were acknowledged for their wonderful artistry. It was explained that the portal includes two pillars in the shape of eagles while the cross beam depicts two whales. The eagles are archetypal images of spirit and courage while the whales represent the totem dance for the younger Johnny.

Among the prominent people who spoke were Ellen White, Shawn Atleo, a chief of the Ahousaht Nation, Jean Crowder, the Nanaimo-Cowichan Member of Parliament, and Leonard Krog, the elected Member of the Legislated Assembly for Nanaimo. Everyone, in their own way, spoke from the heart about peace, tolerance and a bright future.

"The day was for all the different tribes and the public to be able to witness the unveiling of the portal which is a significant legacy for First Nations and all the people of Nanaimo,” said Kuhn.

Last but not least, the Spirit Pole was also a key part of the day-long event. The original tree had stood for decades in Stanley Park, in Vancouver, until it and many others were blown over in a monstrous wind storm. The totem pole (still in progress) was destined for the opening ceremonies at the Aboriginal Games in Duncan that were planned for the following weekend. For most of the day, the grand-daddy cedar log was available for inspired supporters of all ages to carve into. Master Carver and artist Carey Newman and two assistants guided experienced and novice hands alike, as they bore down on the chisel. Anyone who carved was given their shavings as a personal memento of their contribution to the auspicious event. In this way, all the prayers, good will and excitement was etched into the Spirit Pole.

As supper time came, the pullers and their loved ones were ushered to the Nanaimo reserve for another feast. The remaining crowd eventually dispersed while the organizers were left to clean up and reflect on their part in the poignant historic event.

(Part II of the Spirit Pole journey will be continued in the next issue.)