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ACVI at Yuquot Spirit Summerfest 2016

The lighthouse at Yuquot, site of a former Spanish fort on Mowachaht territory.
Photo Credit: John Price

John Price wrote an article, “Cultural Renewal for Yuquot,” on his experience at Yuquot Spirit Summerfest 2016.

John Price / Times Colonist

AUGUST 20, 2016 06:00 AM

Yuquot and Nis’Maas are not words that come readily to the lips of most people in this province. But that might soon change.

I first became aware that Yuquot was the indigenous name for Nootka (Friendly Cove) when I began researching the story of Chinese settlers arriving there in the 1780s, a story that has long circulated in the Chinese-Canadian community.

Staff at the museum at Campbell River introduced me to the people of Yuquot — the Mowachaht-Muchalaht First Nations who have generously been helping with the research.

At their invitation, I recently found myself rushing along a mist-shrouded inlet in a water taxi driven by First Nations operator Max Savey, heading toward Yuquot for the first time.

Research had revealed that a young Mowachaht chief, Comekala, travelled to China in 1786, where he lived for a year. A young Hawaiian, Kaia’na, came to Yuquot in 1788, as did nearly 100 Chinese craftsmen who built the first European-style ship on the coast, as well as the Spanish fortifications at Yuquot.

Archival research was one thing — to actually be on the way to this historic site was another thing entirely.

After an hour on the water, Yuquot came into sight, marked by one of the only staffed lighthouses remaining on the coast. The small harbour faces inland — beyond which beckoned Hawaii and Guangzhou.

We waited to dock, as the pier was crowded with other boats arriving to join in the annual event known as Yuquot Spirit Summerfest. Camping at Yuquot were nearly 100 members of the Mowachaht-Muchalaht First Nations, returning on an annual pilgrimage to reconnect with their ancestral village and to remember their rich history.

This event began in 1992, when the late chief Ambrose Maquinna gathered with his community to reassert Yuquot’s aboriginal heritage, to encourage spiritual renewal and to mark the site as a global destination.

As early as 1923, the Canadian government designated “Nootka,” as it was known then, as a National Historic Site because it was here that Spanish, British, French and American ships came to trade and lay claim to lands that were not theirs in the 18th century.

Ambrose Maquinna’s vision directly challenged the government’s colonial narrative in a way that not only re-asserted their sovereignty over the land, but also charted a global perspective in which Yuquot occupies a central role. That vision is making a difference.

In the old church that has become the community’s cultural centre, Tyee Ha’wilth Yathlua (Chief Mike Maquinna) welcomed us, stating that the annual Spirit Summerfest has meant “Our children today know where they come from.”

Margarita James, head of the Land of Maquinna Cultural Society, introduced John Dewhirst and Bill Folan, special guests invited to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their archeological study of Yuquot, published by Parks Canada in 1966.

The dig, initially begun because of colonial interest in early European arrivals on the coast, proved instead that the Mowachaht-Muchalaht had inhabited the site continuously for more than 4,300 years.

It was a landmark study that inspired the community to become part of an indigenous resurgence that continues to be felt across the country.

As the young of Yuquot delivered luncheon plates of halibut, salmon, bannock and potato salad to all guests, invited and uninvited, Dewhirst and Folan expressed their deep appreciation to the people of Yuquot for the opportunity to live and work in the community and learn about their history.

James recounted how the study inspired the community to demand museums return their cultural treasures, including the carved poles that gaze over the church hall. Yathlua suggested that recent court victories restored some fishing rights that he hoped would provide jobs at Yuquot. Small, but significant, steps in the community’s long fight for justice.

When European explorers such as Capt. James Cook arrived here nearly 250 years ago, Yuquot was a sprawling community of 1,500 people. The sea’s bounty — herring, salmon, seals and whales — provided the sustenance for survival. It was also their spiritual foundation.

The Mowachaht-Muchalaht survived the ravages of colonialism — disease, appropriation of their lands, residential schools and cultural raiding that saw their sacred Whaler’s Shrine taken to the American Museum of Natural History, where it remains to this day.

Their numbers greatly reduced, the community still maintained a small, but vibrant, presence at Yuquot into the 1950s. However, the B.C. government drove the people from Yuquot, promising them jobs at a new pulp mill in Gold River and better school access.

Few jobs ever materialized, but the pulp mill quickly contaminated their adjacent reserve. Again, the community was relocated. The people of Yuquot, who for millennia had been tied to the sea, were forced to move 15 kilometres inland onto a new reserve, Tsaxana.

Still, they persevere with unbelievable generosity and dignity, inspired by friends, family and a vision: Ambrose Maquinna’s 1992 call to re-establish Yuquot as a global site for cultural revival where they can share their history with the world. Working with allies, they drew up plans for a cultural interpretive centre, named Nis’Maas after the traditional house of Chief Maquinna.

Constructing Nis’Maas is the material and spiritual expression of Maquinna’s vision for cultural and community renewal.

It is a community’s dream, one that will create the space to safeguard treasures such as the Whaler’s Shrine when they are repatriated.

Similar visions inspired the First Nations at Cape Mudge (Quadra Island) and the Namgis people of Alert Bay, who together fought for 40 years to repatriate treasures taken when the potlatch was banned.

Their efforts culminated in the building of astonishingly beautiful cultural centres, Nuyumbalees and U’mista.

Nis’Maas is surely an idea whose time has come. It is but a small step along the road to justice and reconciliation in this province.

Source: Times Colonist August 20, 2016 06:00 AM