Yukusem Canoe Project Makes Profound cultural statement

By Malcolm McColl

2008 has been a busy year for Beau Dick, an important artist and cultural leviathan. This year, he spent the May long weekend raising a Haida mortuary pole

Back in October 2006, a feast was held on Cormorant Island in Alert Bay (at the top of Johnstone Strait). During the feast, an invitation was initiated to honour the memories of those lost to the smallpox epidemic.

Beau explained, “Through our tradition and oral history we know that in 1862 over 1,200 Haida canoes passed through our waters, an estimated 14,000 people. The Kwakwakawak were warned by George Thomas Dawson of the small pox inflicted upon the Haida in Victoria.”

Beau continued, “Shortly thereafter, 24 Haida canoes, an estimated 300 souls, appeared near Harble Down Island. They were intercepted, given provisions, quarantined, and then left to die in peace at a location now known as Bones Bay.”

The memorial pole was raised in the Namgis Nation cemetery. Upon completing that important task, which honours the Haida and was received with gratitude, Beau turned his attention to the Yukusem Canoe Project.

On Hanson Island, a camp is constructed in formerly disputed territory, one parcel of which is owned by Jim Pattison. The rest of the four square kilometer island is under the jurisdiction of the Yukusem Heritage Society of the Namgis, Muntigilla, and Tlowitsis First Nations.

Hanson Island’s incredible fir and cedar grove forests had been earmarked for cutting many times over. It used to be logged sporadically, in fact, and then it was going to be cleared. The logging roads are nearly overgrown today but testify to how close this place came to annihilation.

One man (an archaeologist named David Garrick) stood his ground within the forests filled with Culturally Modified Trees (CMTs). Garrick supported the claim that archaeology could save these amazing old-growth forests.

Garrick started his process in 1982 and by 2004 had succeeded in getting Hanson Island returned, by and large intact, to the Yukusem Heritage Society. Hanson Island has since been preserved as a source of archaeological study of the Coastal Nations. Kayak companies, a project called Orcalab that studies killer whales, and many tourists utilize the small island under the jurisdiction of Yukusem Guardians (and Pattison still has his land).

The town of Yukusem is about an hour out of Alert Bay, and boats constantly shuttle back and forth from the town. I spoke to Harry Alfred one afternoon in a garden grove in Yukusem constructed by David Garrick. Harry is the land and resource officer of the Namgis First Nation and represents the measures taken to construct inroads into legal jurisdiction from Garrick’s scientific evidence.

Harry described how the nation rebounded because of David’s work in the groves of ancient CMTs. Harry and fellow Namgis Nation member Don Svanvik sit on the Yukusem board of directors on behalf of the Namgis Nation and both are CMT researchers.

“The Namgis Nation,” said Harry, “comprised about 4,000 km,” and with a wave of his arm in a circular manner, described a rectangular shaped territory inclusive of the Nimpish watershed on northern Vancouver Island.

With the restoration of legal jurisdiction, Beau Dick was finally able to launch the canoe project. As the summer of 2008 passes, Beau’s crews have built several lodges for carvers, canoe makers, weavers, bark harvesters, and the secret society.

About a kilometre away from the beach side camp, canoe carvers are constructing a small flotilla of war canoes. Beau Dick has made a home for the team of builders on the island’s southwest quadrant at Deep Bay.

In the long run, the canoe project is a profound statement of First Nation belonging in the Canadian mosaic.