by Leslie Campbell, July 2010
A few weeks ago David and I found ourselves in Alert Bay, a community of about 1200 people on Cormorant Island, a 40-minute ferry ride from Port McNeill. The Kwakwaka’wakw culture flourishes in Alert Bay, despite many insults, past and present, to their way of life.
I plan to write about our visit at greater length in the future. But I think I am meant to share one of the stories I heard sooner rather than later.
Under a carving shed on the beach, we met master carver Beau Dick who was working on a memorial pole in honour of Patrick Alfred, a ‘Namgis chief who had died a few years ago in a herring boat accident. Though only roughed in, the pole was impressive already. We could see frog and raven, thunderbird and killer whale.
Beau is tall and lanky, with long brown hair and a grey beard. He wears a rumpled black felt hat with feathers and speaks very thoughtfully. Though we didn’t know at the time of our meeting, he is regarded as one of the most creative and versatile Kwakwaka’wakw carvers of his generation, with works in many top museums. He’s a chief, an accomplished singer, composer, historian, and an initiated Hamat’sa, the highest-ranking secret society of the Kwakwaka’wakw.
When we started talking with Beau at the beach, competition from a nearby chain saw proved intense and he suggested we go to his nearby house where he would “give us some information.”
That was an understatement.
Beau wanted to read us a story he had written, one that has been passed down through generations in his family. He implied that perhaps this was what we were there for, but warned us it might be disturbing.
Beau’s house is very modest and well-used. It’s obvious that chopping for the wood stove takes place right beside it. Every surface is well occupied, whether by cats, LPs, books, carving tools, stuff. While we were there, the front door opened frequently—to a fellow carver, a wife, a medicine woman—which barely interrupted the flow of Beau’s storytelling or our rapt attention, though each passerby discovered in turn that they couldn’t leave through the front door as the interior doorknob had disappeared. Oh well; they simply headed to the back door and exited that way.
As he begins his story, first acknowledging his uncle Jimmy Dawson “who kept the story alive,” Beau crosses his long legs and leans forward:
“Going back to the beginning of our story, it is when James Douglas proclaimed British Columbia the new found colony and he hired a man who was a topographer to make maps because Douglas had no idea about the coastline that they were laying claim to.
“It should be brought up again, the fact that they were laying claim to our coastline and they didn’t even know what it consisted of so how can they have any jurisdictional claim at all? Even looking back 150 years ago it is a great embarrassment and it probably still is for British Columbia when they look in the mirror and see the truth.”
Beau told us how his great-grandfather, Kakab, as a young man of high rank, escorted Dawson around his people’s territory and offered him protection “as it was still a pretty wild place.” Kakab and Dawson became very good friends and Dawson taught Kakab how to read and write and do arithmetic on paper, which Kakab appreciated and benefited from.
“In their friendship Dawson travelled further north, past Bella Bella making his maps and he always returned to Mimquimlees, the village of my great-grandfather. Whether he was on his way south to Victoria or heading north to continue his map making he would always stop and visit.”
Beau’s story shifts then, to talk about the Haida of that time, and how up until the 1860s there were probably 14,000 of them. They would often travel in large flotillas of canoes to Fort Victoria to trade, passing through Kwakwaka’wakw waters. After one mass migration, “Dawson told my great-grandfather to stay away from them when they returned from Victoria and of course Kakab asked him why. Dawson said they would all be sick and embarrassedly told him that he knew first hand that the government he worked for—that James Douglas and the Hudson’s Bay Company were holding hands, as he described it—and they had a plan to distribute smallpox-infested blankets amongst the Haida in the hopes that they would spread this disease to all the other tribes on the coast on their way home.
“Why would they want to do that?” asked Beau rhetorically. “The answer is very simple—they wanted to control the resources on our coastline and they were very successful because we know that after this there were only about 600 Haida left…”
When 24 canoes full of sick Haida showed up in Kwakwaka’wakw territory in 1862, they were escorted, said Beau, “to a place that is now known as Bones Bay, for obvious reasons.” There they had running water, and Kakab’s people made sure they had enough food and dry wood, but direct contact was avoided. “They were left to die there in peace,” said Beau.
“…The Kwakwaka’wakw were so grateful to Dawson for what he had done that my great grandfather took his name when it came to register with the white people—George Thomas Dawson. That is why my mother’s maiden name is Dawson.”
A couple of years ago, Beau hosted a potlatch in honour of the Haida people who died of smallpox in Bones Bay on West Cracroft Island, where a mortuary pole he helped carve was erected. Another stands in the burial grounds in Alert Bay.
There were more stories from Beau and others we met in Alert Bay, which I will share another time. As Beau concluded one of his other stories: “Gifts amount to nothing if you don’t share them.”
Leslie Campbell plans to return to Alert Bay. She is grateful to Beau Dick, Wayne Alfred and his brother George, and cousin Bruce Alfred, who generously shared their thoughts about art, politics and life during our visit. See Haida Laas, March 2009 at www.haidanation.ca.
For more on Kwakwaka’wakw culture see www.umista.org.