From Part 1, Sept. 19, 2015: A visceral sense of place is very important to me when writing my novels, and after setting them in far-flung locales, I’m bringing this new novel-in-progress home to my back yard. Growing up fourth-generation in the far Northwest corner of the U.S., very close to Canada, I’m rooted in our green forests and inland waterways. I’ve always felt a tension between my love of my homeland and wanderlust, and in this new novel I’m exploring themes of displacement as ocean levels rise in the near future and coastal dwellers must move. Northwest native culture is so interwoven with the importance of ancestral homelands that I felt I needed a refresher visit to some coastal villages and wilderness just to the north in British Columbia. And research made a fine excuse to pack up the car for a ferry and road trip.
Bidding adieu to lovely Victoria on the south end of Vancouver Island, Thor and I drove toward Port Hardy on the north end, where we would catch another B.C. ferry heading up the Inside Passage, ultimately to Bella Coola and thence inland. We made a couple of stops on the long drive up the island, the first at Nanaimo to see native petroglyphs.
I’ve been fascinated most of my life with these mysterious rock carvings found worldwide, often with similar humanized faces or staring eyes, usually found overlooking water. (My novel Islands featured an archeologist investigating petroglyphs in the Caribbean.) These Northwest glyphs feature what appear to be regional animals along with the human figures.
Another quick stop at the lovely Campbell River Museum, where we admired more carved masks. This large wall mask, beautifully inlaid with abalone shell, opened periodically to reveal the second face hidden inside, a feature of some of the ceremonial carvings.
In addition to tightly-woven hats and baskets of cedar bark or rushes, the museum displayed these large flat coppers. The coppers were part of tribal or family wealth, and were often broken apart to distribute at the potlatches where different groups gathered for special occasions, and power and influence were demonstrated by the riches given away. (Click on photos for larger view.)
And yet another sobering reminder of colonial history in both the U.S. and Canada, where misguided policies attempted to eradicate native culture by forcing children into “residential schools” where they were forbidden to use their own languages and isolated from families and traditions.
The Canadian government also withheld vaccines from the natives during the smallpox epidemic of 1862, resulting in the death of tens of thousands, and the loss of entire family lines that were the keepers of sacred songs and stories. As we continued our trip and spoke with more tribal people, or Aboriginals as many in Canada term First Nations people, we would hear more about these terrible tragedies, and the ongoing quest for reparations and recovery of what traditions can be saved.
(The next installment will be in two weeks, October 31, featuring our ferry ride through the lower Inside Passage and a rainy late night stop at the spooky “ghost town” of Ocean Falls. Just in time for Halloween….)