I arrived at Village Island with the Campbell River Adventure Club. We all wanted to experience the great outdoors and explore the mystery of this historic site. The place was stunningly beautiful and the air sang with the whispers of ancient spirits. My previous life had conveniently dissolved just prior to this trip freeing me to take on a fascinating new adventure, so I followed my heart and stayed to make a life and a home there (for a while). Building a community at an abandoned native village was not even on my list of possible futures at the time. In fact, I highly doubt that I would have even dreamed of taking on such a task except for a strange intuitive whisper some years before about having an island to call my own.
For 10,000 years, the people of Mamalaleqala had lived, harvested, developed intricate art forms and celebrated their culture through potlatching at Meem Quam Leese (the village with the rocks and the islands in front) now known as “Village Island.” In the 1970’s shortly after most Kwakwaka’wakw moved to locations with better health care and schools, the non-native people began to arrive. As with so many other ancient Kwakwaka’wakw sites, cultural items were dug up and hauled away and when nothing of value was left to take, non-native people began using the spiritual significance of these sites to make money for themselves by selling guided tours. Several years before my arrival, Tom, the father of my children had been sent to protect the location from looting and to share the story of his people.
Meem Quam Lees was an amazing place with even the most hardened agnostics commenting on the spiritual presence that could be felt there. While most Mamalaleqala people refused to go near the village after dark, I comfortably spent many nights alone there while pregnant with my first child. And the people began to return. Elders showed up while out fishing wanting to sell their art work; young people came when they were lost and alone; and the tourists came to learn about and support the Kwakwaka’wakw people through the purchase of their art. I would often sell out of everything in one day in my little gift shop.. The seas provided for us abundantly as I soaked up the language and history and seemed to absorb it into my ever expanding belly. The village was coming back to life and the ancient spirits were rejoicing.
Then everything started to change. Tour companies who had been making a killing began to complain. They did not like all of these native people, especially the troubled youth, near their camping areas and they were compensating the band handsomely for the use of the place. Complaints were encouraged by those in charge. We stuck it out as long as we could until finally some tour operators took us to court and took it all away. I fought hard to hang on but was eventually forced to give in and move on to spirit’s next plan for me. I did not leave empty handed though. From my experiences at Meem Quam Lees, I found a connection to the ancestors that no one can take away.
Gala kas la
(Go in peace)
Kathleen Westergaard’s spiritual journey has taken her home to Village Island, Haida Gwaii and Campbell River. As the mother of James Aul Sewid’s great grand children, she has had the privilege of living and learning in the Kwakwaka’wakw culture for many years and is looking forward to many more.
Mamalaleqala – The people of the Mamalaleqala community.
Meem Quam Lees – The village with the rocks and the islands in front, one of the village sites built, owned and used by the Mamalaleqala community.
Kwakwaka’wakw – The Kwakwala speaking people of which the Mamalaleqala are one community.