By Malcolm McColl
Beau Dick, famous Canadian artist of the Pacific coast tradition, lives a hair’s breadth away from changing the universe out at Yukusem Culture Camp, now situated year-round on an island 15 km southwest of Alert Bay, B.C. “There is a strong desire to build something but an awareness that others have standards that may be too high to be met by the culture camp experience,” he explained.
The culture camp on Yukusem is a growing collective of builders and artisans, but the living is rustic, practically remote. “The question is,” says Beau, “are you a camper? Camping is by definition a completely interdependent experience. The burden is shared and activities are shared. The timeline in the experience is all shared.” In the Yukusem Culture Camp the time-line becomes lost, and this is shared. Knowledge of the past is also shared, for Beau is a man with unusually strong connections to coastal history.
He was born in 1955 and raised in Kingcome Inlet, B.C. (an inlet flowing deep into the coast) where he stayed until 1965. In the first half of the previous century, this was the site of a remote fish cannery and a lot of jurisdictionally-oriented individuals. Beau lived his first ten years with his extended family including elders, uncles and aunts, and a few others who stuck to the Big House culture of their ancestry. They lived in personal contact with the pristine surroundings of Kingcome Inlet, which was a place of stories, hard work, and craftsmanship. These times were spent fully immersed in Kwakwala, the language of the nation. Beau sat quietly amongst the carvers, his father, grandfather, and uncles, and listened to histories, legends, and laws in Kwakwala, and he learned the way things came to pass and some of what is to come.
“The Bella Coolas were primarily Salishan people who over a period of time had occupied the area [up Burke Channel, halfway along the B.C. Pacific coast], and after this came a period of encroachment upon the Kwaguilth territory,” Beau explained, for the Bella Coolas had long been envious of Kingcome Inlet resources, he said. It was therefore predictable to the Homatsa society that a large party of Bella Coolans would arrive at the entrance to the territory at Gilford Island. The arrival of the lead Bella Coolan party was met in peace and bearing gifts. A disarming presentation drew the Homatsa society into a lull, while a second party descended and destroyed the Gilford Island settlement, leaving many heads on sticks and taking the Kwaguilth women away to Bella Coola. Beau continued, “These women retained their names and their titles, but only gradually did the truth about their origins begin to emerge.” He explained that status in a coastal nation is paramount and the hierarchy that composes the society is immutable. “Eventually, the elevated status of those women and their offspring emerged and altered the face of a Salishan principality.”
When Beau was 10 years old, the family sent him to Vancouver to live with an aunt and uncle so he could get some serious book learning. He was aghast at what he saw, for the impact of the 1960’s took him by surprise; he called it a culture shock. Upon his return to the Pacific Northwest, the family was separated from Kingcome Inlet and Beau settled into Alert Bay, B.C. where his early life lessons began to percolate. He became a man who lives to learn and who passes along the lessons.
Beau is a hereditary chief in the Kwakawak Awak society called Homatsa, known as “the cannibal society.” It is also known as “the warrior society” within the coastal clans that kept themselves hidden for many years of Potlatch persecutions. The territory they ruled was vast and rich, and the Kwakawak Awak populations were found from northern Vancouver Island to the mainland, from north of the Campbell River all the way to Bella Coola. They held the jurisdiction in the lands and waters of their country until the balance of power changed. Up until that shift, the Mamalilikullu and the Haida were accustomed to crossing the Kwaguilth waters every year during the summer to conduct a trade mission with the Cowichan and Salishan nations. When the Hudson’s Bay Company arrived and a fort was established at Fort Rupert, the HBC immediately set about usurping Kwaguilth jurisdiction. According to Beau, this made peace untenable once the Haida traders arrived at Fort Rupert and bypassed the traditional protocol of stopping at the clanhouses of the Kwaguilth chiefs. Instead, they opted to gather around the HBC fort and ignore the customary exchanges with the Kwaguilth.
In response to this diplomatic snub, the Kwaguilth messengers spread the word, and soon the Homatsa society had arranged their own reception. The Haida were intercepted at modern day Kelsey Bay, deep in the present day Johnstone Strait, as they continued their southward journey through the Inside Passage. There, they were surrounded and slaughtered. The heads of the Haida chiefs were taken back to Fort Rupert where the women stood on the beach, holding out their aprons. As the Kwaguilth rowed past, they tossed the heads ashore into women’s aprons. The head of one Haida chief tore through the apron of his wife and rolled along the beach, as the story is told, he was still trying to get away from the Kwaguilth.
The Homatsa society and other Kwaguilth societies each have a place in the Yukusem Culture Camp. Here, the stories of the past will be heard through the Aboriginal Guardians of the Yukusem Heritage Society. For more information, contact Andrea Sanborn of the Umista Cultural Society (www.umista.org).