Tribal Journeys Canoes Arrive at Cape Mudge on Canada Day

DSCN0728Hundreds–perhaps as many as a thousand–people gathered at the We-Wai-Kai First Nation Village on Quadra Island on Canada Day to welcome canoes participating in the Tribal Journeys, which is travelling the coast. As in days gone by, the We-Wai-Kai people treated residents, visitors and over 100 paddlers—“pullers”—to a grand welcome and a feast.

The crowded beach and drumming of paddles against canoes, answered by singers and drummers on shore, was once a common feature of life in this village. In 1892 a series of potlatches was reported on in provincial newspapers, as each extended family from this and neighbouring villages built upon the last in a display of generosity and a show of wealth. Then, as now, the beach was crowded with people to welcome each arrival. There were said to be over 1,000 people at one of these 1892 potlatches,  coming from as far away as DSCN0752Washington State, in the south, and Bella Bella, to the north. Then, as now, their long sea voyages were directed by the call of their helmsman’s and their paddle songs, which carried across Discovery Passage.

Potlatching was a complex system that encompassed almost every aspect of life, from the affirmation of marriages and deaths to financial systems and spiritual beliefs. Attendees were called together to act as witnesses.


The helmsman in the We-Wai-Kai people's impressive canoe.

The helmsman in the We-Wai-Kai people’s impressive canoe.

“The Indians of Cape Mudge,” reported the Colonist newspaper of Sept 6, 1892, “are preparing for another big potlatch, which promises to eclipse the one recently given by Salmon River Bill… Orders have already been given for thirty canoes, $1,000 worth of bracelets, 700 boxes of biscuit, 2,000 blankets, 600 barrels of flour, 700 trunks… The big event will commence early next week and will last for several days. Twenty canoes are in port loading up freight for the potlatch, which promises to be one of the biggest held in many years.”

A logger working on the island in 1892 attended one of these potlatches and recalled that the beach was a mass of canoes. The guests crowded into “Skookum Charlie’s” big house for dances and speeches and later went back outside for the crowning spectacle, when Charlie gave a chief from the west coast of Vancouver Island a magnificent war canoe. It was 30 feet long, recalled Percy Smith, and seven feet wide, hewed from one massive cedar log. “The prow was adorned with a carved eagle’s head and along the sides were oval slots so that those manning the paddles would be shielded from attack. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it,'” remarked one of Smith’s companions. “‘It’s like a Viking ship.'” DSCN0785When the loggers learnt that this splendid craft, made by a northern tribe especially for this potlatch, was to be broken into pieces and burnt–in a show of ostentatious wealth–they pooled their money and tried to buy it; but they were refused. “Later,” Smith said, “a large crowed watched quietly as the visiting chief struck the first blow toward the destruction of the gift canoe.”

The grand spectacle of such hospitality commanded respect then, even from non-Native participants—just as it did yesterday with all who attended the arrival of Tribal Journeys canoes. Every detail was thought through, from parking and shuttle services, to staggered eating times and volunteers galore, from both We-Wai-Kai people and non-Native islanders—to make us welcome–with our thanks!