National Post – Douglas Quan
On the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, crescent-shaped Friendly Cove serves as a welcome mat for a former First Nations village called Yuquot. In 1778, Captain James Cook’s arrival here represented “first contact” between Europeans and First Nations on the west coast. Once home to a village of Mowachaht people, today only one couple remains, elders Ray and Terry Williams. Their only neighbours, Mark and Joanne Tiglmann, run a lighthouse at the cove’s entrance. As National Post reporter Douglas Quan discovered, each couple represents unique parts of the Canadian story.
Disease and migration turned the village, sometimes called the ‘birthplace of British Columbia’ into a ghost town
Sitting on a log on the cobbled shores of Friendly Cove along northwest Vancouver Island, Ray Williams is eager to share a story.
The retired logger and fisherman is holding a six-inch fishing spear, believed to be 500 years old, made from an elk antler. A visiting nine-year-old boy found it earlier this summer while sifting through pebbles on the beach.
“It was an incredible find. … He discovered a special thing for our people,” says Williams, 75, an elder of the Mowachaht First Nation, one of 14 related tribes whose people are known collectively as the Nuu-chah-nulth.
It is hard to picture now, but this remote bench of land called Yuquot, which translates into “where the wind blows from all directions,” was once home to an entire village of Mowachaht people.
But disease and migration turned the village, sometimes called the “birthplace of British Columbia,” into a ghost town. Today, Ray and his wife, Terry, are the only permanent residents left, save for a couple of lighthouse keepers who live at the cove’s entrance.
In the summer, you can usually find Ray, who calls himself the area’s “protector,” happily sharing stories of the village’s past as he collects fees from hikers and campers who come by seaplane or boat.
But as Ray and Terry get up in age, there’s growing urgency to find ways to preserve and promote Yuquot’s rich history before it is lost forever.
Over the years, Mowachaht band leaders, who are based in Tsaxana, B.C., have talked about building a “world class” interpretive centre and seeking the return of a sacred whaling shrine that had been spirited away in the early 1900s to a museum in New York.
But progress has been slow. Evidence of the former village today is limited to an abandoned Catholic church, decaying gravesites and a fallen totem pole from 1923 shrouded in a thicket of blackberry bushes.
Ray, who, along with Terry, are among a handful of people left who speak the traditional Mowachaht language, worries time is running out.
“Most Canadians don’t know about the history of Yuquot,” he says. “We need to tell it to the world.”
The history of Yuquot, which is nestled between the Pacific and old-growth forests, is often framed in the context of the arrival of British and Spanish explorers in the late 1700s. But the presence of indigenous people goes back more than 4,000 years.
In the “pre-contact” days, hundreds of Mowachaht people occupied the village in the summer, taking advantage of the area’s abundant marine resources, including fish, seals and sea otters. Rows of cedar longhouses lined the spit of land.
“Imagine dozens of dugout canoes beached in the cove and the smell of salmon smoking between cedar sticks,” Ray’s son, Sanford Williams, a master carver, writes on his website. “In the summer, it would be alive with the sound of drums and people singing.”
The village was also the reputed epicentre of the Nuu-chah-nulth people’s storied whaling culture. Generations of whale hunters are said to have performed secret purifying rituals at a shrine behind the village before heading out to sea.
The arrival in 1778 of British explorer, Capt. James Cook and his crew ushered in a period of dramatic change. Villagers eagerly traded sea otter pelts, fish hooks and carvings for knives, nails and anything else with metal.
The natives left a favourable impression on the Europeans, who dubbed the harbour “Friendly Cove.”
As the fur-trade era ended, natives turned to other pursuits, such as seal hunting and commercial fishing. The 19th century, however, saw a sharp decline in the native population due to disease, inter-tribal warfare and the advent of residential schools.
Against this backdrop, museums began to see value in collecting native artifacts. When Franz Boas, an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, laid eyes on a photo of the mysterious whaling shrine in Yuquot in 1903, he leaned on one of his collaborators, George Hunt, to try to salvage it.
The shrine consisted of dozens of wooden human-like figures without arms, as well as a row of human skulls, tucked inside a small shelter. Anthropologist Aldona Jonaitis has written that Hunt was able to quietly secure release of the shrine from the two chiefs for $500.
“It is the best thing that I have ever bought from the Indians,” Hunt later wrote to Boas.
In the mid-1900s, Yuquot still buzzed with about 300 residents, some having returned after the closure of a nearby cannery. But by the late 1960s, the numbers dwindled. With the closure of a day school and little federal support for the unemployed, villagers began moving to Gold River, B.C., with promises of pulp mill jobs that largely went unfulfilled.
Ray and Terry quickly returned to Yuquot and decided to stay put.
“We didn’t have to discuss it,” Ray says. “Our heart belongs here.”
Eventually, they were the only ones left.
Imagine dozens of dugout canoes beached in the cove and the smell of salmon smoking between cedar sticks
In the 2008 book Havens in a Hectic World, Terry tells author Starr Weiss the isolation doesn’t bother her because she can feel the presence of her ancestors.
“Living here all these years alone, it doesn’t matter where we go now, because they’re here. The connections are here.”
Sanford, who returns to Yuquot in the summer for the quiet, says he’s proud his parents stood their ground.
“They held on to this land for so many years,” he says. “It’s going to be a shame when my parents are gone.”
In an effort to preserve the area’s indigenous heritage, Ambrose Maquinna, late chief of the Mowachaht-Muchalaht First Nation, laid out a plan in the early 1990s.
It began with a group pilgrimage to New York to inspect the pieces of the whaling shrine that, to some community members, had been “taken” from them.
“It hit home in my heart,” Ray says. “When I touched them I reconnected with our ancestors. That’s how powerful it is.”
Upon their return, Maquinna launched an annual summer campout called Summerfest — consisting of salmon barbecues, storytelling, singing and drumming — to reacquaint younger generations with the area’s history.
The community also applied to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board to re-designate Yuquot as a national historic site. It had received such a designation in 1923, but from the point of view of European colonization.
“From our perspective, Europeans did not ‘discover’ this part of the world, nor is the European arrival the singlemost important event in our history,” the application asserted.
“The Mowachaht-Muchalaht seek to be acknowledged as being in a position of authority … concerning the history of our part of the world.”
Their application was approved in 1997.
Other projects have been slower to get off the ground. In 1996, local chiefs committed to building an interpretive centre in Yuquot and bringing home the whalers’ shrine.
But fundraising for the centre has been tough, and not everyone is onboard with repatriating the shrine. At least one elder held the view that because whaling is no longer practised, Mowachaht do not possess knowledge of the rituals to control the shrine’s power.
Even if the artifacts are returned, there is no consensus if they should be put on display.
The American Museum of Natural History said it has not received any official requests for the shrine’s return. “Each situation is unique – particularly with international inquiries – and we review them when we get them,” a spokesman said in an email.
University of Victoria historian John Price wrote in the Victoria Times-Colonist last year that an interpretive centre in Yuquot is “an idea whose time has come. It is but a small step along the road to justice and reconciliation in this province.”
Until that day comes, Ray says he will continue greeting visitors on his quad, imparting some of the history, and maybe teaching a word or two of Mowachaht.
“We have history plaques made by the government about Cook’s arrival here. But nothing about us,” he says.
“It’s not right.”