Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Ferry to Alert Bay

The sun was just making an appearance as we boarded the BC Ferry at Port McNeill at 8:40 am.   A 45-minute ride would take us to Alert Bay on Cormorant Island.  Taking ferries from one island to another is a way of life for people up here.  I think we were the only tourists among the crowd.  Everyone else was going to work.
By now, we were aware that most of the historic buildings would be closed.  Cormorant Island has been home to many First Nation communities in British Columbia for years and years.  In the late 1800's, it was an important trading center for logging camps, but we came over here for one reason only:  To see the Hall of Masks at the U'Mista Cultural Center.  Alleluia!  The center was still open, even during the off season.
As I write this weeks later, I still get the shivers when I think of the beautiful old masks I saw in that darkened room.  Photographs were not allowed, so I had to imprint the images on my brain.  I close my eyes and picture the thick green beak and penetrating eyes of the Thunderbird.  Or the blue wolf with long white fangs.

Both my travel buddy and I were affected by the power of these pieces.  Not only were they beautifully carved, but they spoke of myths and ceremonies, joy and tragedy, discrimination and finally, fortitude.  It is a story about Lost and Found.

Most of the masks were used in a ceremony called the Potlatch.  People came together during special events like marriage, the naming of children or mourning of the dead.  Dances were performed and gifts were handed out.  That the missionaries and white men who settled up here were threatened by such events seems absurd today.  Like everywhere in the Americas back in the 1800's, the foreigners wanted to "civilize" the natives.  Their ceremonies were just too different.  The Potlatch was declared illegal.  They were no longer allowed to make speeches, to dance or to give gifts.  The ceremonial regalia, including the masks, were all confiscated and ended up in museums and private collections of the very men who banned them.

The law was not reversed until 1951!  Ten years later, an effort was made to find and bring back to the island every single item that was taken.  It's an ongoing hunt, but we were amazed at how many of the masks had been found and lovingly placed in this exhibit.  They are not behind glass.  As the young woman told us, "They had been lost for too long to be caged again."  That's not to say they weren't protected.  Get too close (like we did) and alarms go off!
I had to be satisfied with taking pictures of the contemporary masks in the gift shop.  How I wanted to buy one!  But they are hundreds, even thousands of dollars each.  I had to be contented with buying a silver charm for my "souvenir bracelet".
As we walked back to catch the 3:15 ferry to Port McNeill, we saw a bald eagle.   We had seen eagle feathers used in the costumes and headdresses of the First Nation people.  There is a dance that mimics the raptor's soaring flight.  These birds are revered for their longevity and extraordinary vision.  That one should be watching us as we exit the U'Mista Cultural Center,  seemed so right.  He seemed to symbolize the spirit of the people who live here and have vowed to never forget.

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