Make sure to visit Just Art Native Art Gallery on Northern Vancouver Island..
PORT MCNEILL – With drummers coaxing traditional rhythms from the smooth cedar log in the new Big House, and a stomach filled with succulent sockeye, it’s easy to forget you’re taking a cultural tour to the revitalized First Nations village of Tsatsisnukwomi.
As energetic young dancers move colourful costumes through traditional patterns learned from elders, who watch with pride, a glance into the totems’ eyes whisks one to a time when all Da’naxda’xw First Nation people lived on Harbledown Island, 20 nautical miles from this Northern Vancouver Island community.
And that is part of an overall plan for Chief William Glendale, who has worked tirelessly for nearly 20 years to rekindle embers left there by his ancestors. Da’naxda’xw Cultural Trips begin with a half-hour cruise through scenic waters, aboard the speedy boat, a 17-metre vessel capable of carrying 48 people in comfort and safety. Along the way, passengers watch for marine life, and on this day a splashing escort of orcas and porpoises delights them.
When the boat lands at the wide and sturdy wharf on Harbledown Island, skipper Bill leads the party to the dockhead, where he asks permission to visit Da’naxda’xw land. In reply, Chief Glendale and his extended family provide a traditional welcome.
Chief Glendale then leads visitors along a white-gravel pathway, lined with unexpected electric lamp posts powered by an unheard generator, to the 2,600-square-foot Long House. A glance around the cleared and grassed village catches a handful of modern houses, a dozen outbuildings and more walkways lined with lamps.
As well as tasty sockeye, cooked over a traditional beach fire, “light lunch” includes endless amounts of potato salad, mixed vegetables, coleslaw, muffins and non alcoholic beverages. Visitors are invited to enjoy seconds, and told it is polite to do so. An extra piece of sockeye is easy to swallow.
After lunch, dancing begins with ‘Taming the Hamatsa’ and ends with ‘Umlala’, a Fun Dance everyone joins. Between dances, the chief and family tell about the ancient community, why it was abandoned 35 years ago, and how Chief Glendale and wife Anne have worked to breathe in new life.
“They shut our schools down and took away our services, that’s why we left,” recalls Chief Glendale. “We had 10 kids and some of them went to boarding houses, but they came back changed. We ended up in Courtenay.”
While the Glendales were welcome there, and they liked the schools, the chief felt a stranger in a strange land. “It never felt right, living on another tribe’s land, so I wasn’t for it,” he says, adding that he always dreamed of rebuilding his uncle’s Big House and the community around it.
It took 15 years of to convince federal officials the Da’naxda’xw should rebuild their village at its historic site, but after that Chief Glendale and his family moved onto a seine boat anchored offshore and cleared the land. “That felt so good, because we were working on our own place,” says the chief. “This is where I was brought up and that’s why we’re coming back.”
Many people felt the challenge of rebuilding would be too much for the chief, who is now in his mid-70s. “Some people figured I would just start and quit, but I was determined to finish,” he said. “Here it is, and everyone seems to think it’s pretty good. Is it?”
It took Chief Glendale and his grandson five years to build the Big House, which has elaborate carvings on the front and totem poles inside, and is supported by two massive cedar beams. “We did this all by hand, the way I figure my ancestors did it,” he says. “It was actually very simple.”
With the Big House rebuilt, all that’s needed for Chief Glendale’s plan is more people, and federal officials have approved 10 new homes at the village site in the coming year.
“A lot of things made me do this for my people,” says Chief Glendale. “A lot of them are in towns where they are doing nothing, but here there are lots of things to do, like digging clams, catching crabs and carving. It’s different when you live here, because you can’t just run out to the corner store, but everything we need is right here.”
Cultural tours are offered during summer month. Please contact me for details.