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Romantic Canada
Chapter XXXII The Indians of Alert Bay

ALTHOUGH situated directly on the Alaskan coastal highway, with a constant stream of large freight and passenger steamers calling at the cannery pier or dropping anchor in its fine harbour, Alert Bay is a spot haunted by the spirit of the untamed, full of those powerful undercurrents that thrive on the edge of the wilderness. It is altogether mysterious and bizarre.

Part of this spirit is due to the wildness of nature hereabouts, to the high-reaching mountains, the low-hanging, encircling mists, the dark woods, and, in the rainy season, the general atmospheric wetness clinging to the nearer distances; but specifically it is due to other things, things which the natural setting helps to accentuate and for which it forms a splendidly effective stage. Merely to mention Alert Bay is to think of Indians. For this little trading-post, now grown to prime importance as a Pacific coast port-of-call, has filled a high place in coastal Indian life from time immemorial.

Just how long the Indians have had homes or congregated at Alert Bay no one knows, not even they themselves. But as far back as their traditions go, this particular spot on the coast has been a gathering-place focussing all the events of tribal life in peace and war. Time, therefore, has vested Alert Bay with all the importance of a capital and hallowed it to the red men all up and down the coast. Far within the Arctic Circle, away off on the shores of Queen Charlotte Islands, the aboriginals look to Alert for guidance in many things and in ways that are a mystery to us.

Building on established foundations, Alert Bay is now an Indian reservation, with an Indian agent and government school. For upward of a score of years a Church of England, established here with a resident rector, has maintained two boarding-schools— one for Indian boys and the other for Indian girls. But despite all these civilizing influences, there still obtains in the village the mysterious philosophy of life embodied in the community-house without windows, the open wood-fire in the middle of the floor and the hole in the roof for escaping smoke. There still remain the picturesque dugout or kayak, totem poles, big and little; tree burials, potlatches, including wild orgies, and a host of other curious customs that lend colour and weave a motif of weirdness into all the life hereabouts.

A curving beach and a boardwalk above the swishing waves following the bend of the beach, form what might elsewhere be termed "The Avenue of the Totem". These totems, or "family trees", the chief attraction of visitors to Alert Bay, are curiosities indeed! British Columbia giant trees sculptured by some old redskin into heraldic insignia of tribe and family, dealing mostly with leviathans that dwarf "our family trees" to nothing by comparison.

Crude? Yes, and no. The writing is a little unformed, perhaps, but the tale itself, one of the most perfect bits of symbol the world contains.

Whales, bears, giant kingfishers, thunderbirds and fish tell the life-history of the primitive ancestor, sitting astride the giant sulphur-bottom, harpoon in hand, with a pictorial accuracy and vim that far exceed the ordinary printed page having to do with early times. It must be remembered, too, that the early Indians did not know how to write in any form but that of carving and colour, so that the men who at different times carved these totems were not only artists of a kind, but historians, limning history—valuable Canadian history—upon the heart of the giant British Columbia cedar, to the end that all ages may read what happened in these parts when the world was young.

As family history, in this peerage of the race, there are doubtless many errors. Details are probably exaggerated to reveal personal prowess to greater advantage. The teeth of the bear are very large, the whale is a perfect giant and rapid in movement as was no whale before or since, so that the forbear who leapt astride the giant back, from the kayak, harpoon in hand, was a veritable master among Indians—a hero of heroes. All of which everyone admits to be legitimate poetic licence in the totem-maker and wisely calculated to whet the edge of the most callous imagination. But although the place of the whale is great and the lure of him, even at this distance in time, well-nigh impossible to resist, since through the length and breadth of him a wicked spirit seems to look at you through the mist, out of very spirited eyes fairly dancing with mischief, still it is the "Thunder-bird" who is the reigning spirit of these totems, swaying the imagination of the tribe far more than the whale, or the bear, who is here depicted holding against his great hairy breast the sacred "copper" emblem of "Chieftaincy" to this day. Even to uninitiated eyes there is a magic weirdness in the very look of the "Thunderbird". Its beak resembles somewhat the prows of two kayaks inverted one above the other. The bow of the lower, forming the under half of the beak, is hinged and allowed to drop open on state occasions. At the time of the potlatch, by dint of much writhing and wriggling, the "braves" make their entrance to the house of entertainment through the "Thunder-bird's" open mouth. It requires but little imagination to see how this beak might be converted into a diabolical trap. Indeed, there is a story common in Alert Bay that at one time a tribe of enemies were invited to "potlach" and treacherously slain, a man at a time, as they entered the house through the beak, the arrangement being such that no Indian on the outside knew what was happening till he received hs death wound. The entire number of guests was thus wiped out.

Standing before the bird, mystery shrouding the crude mechanism, you feel that it was designed for some such coup d'etat as the one cited. It is so simple and so subtle withal. Every time you see an Indian pass it, stolid and reserved, he seems to glance that way with satisfaction, proud that here among his people should be a device that holds the interest of the white man, to the extent of repeated visits, if his stay in the neighbourhood be for long. The times assure us that the treacherous "feast-of-blood" will never be repeated. Yet the potlatch survives and who, even of the Indians, knows if the diabolical spirit of the bird is dead?

It is not altogether the natural scenery that makes the mystery and charm for the visitor to Alert Bay, but rather those unfathomable, sometimes intangible things, which having no articulate voice yet speak with marvellous power to every generation, and I suppose have so spoken since the dawn of time. One day as we were looking the "Thunder-bird" in the eye, trying to read his secret, a group of little Indian boys played nearby with their bows and arrows. Presently another lad came out of a "community house" with his family coffee-pot, which he set up on a post for a target. Soon the twang of the bow-strings and the tinkle of the falling coffee-pot spoke eloquently of the quality of the youngster's markmanship. Over against the sea-edge of the board-walk a group of men and fat kloochmans (squaws) squatted on logs, watching the tableau and giving a deep, satisfied grunt every time the coffee-pot was shot from its perch. To the Indian—whose ancestors fought the giant sulphur-bottom, single-handed, on his own ground, and invented the Thunder-bird's wily beak to trap the foe—skill in the use of the bow and arrow even to-day is of far more value than any coffee-pot ever made! At least the Indian mind is not hampered by little things! Marksmanship is still the perfection of acquirements to him. All his training hitherto has been along such lines. It is in his blood. But in these days, he turns his skill to different ends. He is broad and big in his conception of nationality now, where formerly it was the "tribe" that was the biggest concept of his days. To-day the Alert Bay Indian almost reverences the privileges of nationality! The British flag means so big a thing to him that when at death  he now consents to be buried in the ground instead of being put far up in one of the giant trees in some old box or trunk much  too short for his six feet unless doubled up once or twice, he usually has one and sometimes two or three handsome British flags set up over his grave on a pole or an overhanging tree — a rich bit of colour among the dark green pines. What faith in the flag and in its conquering ability to drive away evil spirits! Day and night, year in and year out, above that lone grave in the mists "the flag is still there"—waving above great painted whales, giant kingfishers, yellow moths and other symbols of name and place.

In keeping with this loyal spirit is "the roll of honour" hanging on the little English church door! An honour roll on which the names of red men and white men commingle! Some of the volunteers have made "the supreme sacrifice" "somewhere in France", and are now taking their long sleep under the poppies in Flanders; and "the flag is still there," with its deeper significance for the red man than ever before. For with his life's blood he has bought the right to add it, a new theme, to his family totem.

A splendid work is being done among the Alert Bay Indians by both the Government and the Church. The Indian agent here is a hardy Ontario Scotsman, who understands the Indian and has won his confidence to a splendid degree. "'Tis true," he himself assured us, "they still live in the community-house. But I'm not sure," he added with characteristic Scotch humour, "but what the hole in the roof gives better ventilation than the win- dow in the pretty cottage that's never opened."

The work of the minister and his assistant teachers in the boys' school, and the English women giving their lives to work among the girls, is another fine medium for developing patriotism in the Indians here and to the north. Indian children appear at these schools from "anywhere up Arctic way" and on their arrival are frequently suffering from troublesome diseases, of which they must be cured before anything can be done for them from the the teaching point of view. The kindness and skill of the teacher in such cases does much to win the love and respect of whole tribes whom she has never seen and probably never will. On the other hand, the Indians have never seen her, but in their minds these teachers belong to the flag—the big scarlet flag that they love, and that, is enough.

The teacher in charge of the Indian Girls' School at Alert is the oldest daughter of an English colonel of the Imperial army, a man who, in his prime, superintended the construction of one or two forts which in their day were rated as "Keys of Empire". She considers her life well spent here and although she and her father are separated by vast distances, they are united in the national service; and I take it the old colonel is as proud of his daughter and her work as of his forts. Here at school the future chiefs and braves and squaws of tribes-to-be learn to speak the mother tongue—English, the language of the world—with passable fluency, though, often coming from far-distant sections of the Northland, they cannot understand or speak each other's dialect—a fact rather surprising to the casual visitor, who is apt to fall into the error of thinking all Indians speak the same language.

Sunday at Alert Bay offers rare opportunities to the visitor. Dropping in to church in the morning, it is indeed a novel service one happens on, all the old familiar prayers and hymns in the strange tongue that seems to express only k, w and a sounds! After church an incoming steamer with passengers from the North offers a very satisfactory excuse for a stroll along "Totem Avenue", where Indians of all ages sit sunning themselves, or are arriving and departing in family groups in the kayak to visit some distant settlement far up the Nimkish. The young folk in their civilized and rather good, if somewhat bright-coloured "Sunday bests", are all down on the Cannery pier, seeing the crowd come off the boat. The older women, not caring for such "modern proceedings", paddle off alone in kayaks to gather driftwood from the opposite shores of the bay; the shore-edge of the tree-cemetery being an excellent "catch" for the "chips" that are the gift of the sea.

But it is the Indian of the week-day, the Indian going about his business, that spells the most interest after all. A stroll along the boardwalk then reveals sights that have to do with subjects of world-wide interest—like food supplies and women at work. For it is the Indian woman (klooeliman) who does the work, as board-walk scenes so frequently demonstrate. A group of squaws —bending low, heads together—on the grass at the front door of a cottage are trussing up a dozen juicy salmon between home-made frames of clean pine-sticks. A little nearby shack, from every crevice of which an acrid smell pToceeds, proclaims the "smoke-house". A proper fire is revealed every time the crude door swings on its creaking hinge to admit another fish to the council of its peers. A little farther along, an old squaw sits crouched on a shawl on a float under the wet pier-head, cleaning, opening and splitting salmon from a loaded kayak. Every now and then talking to herself, she works away with a will, while you, looking on from above, wish you understood enough of her guttural talk to tell whether she herself was the Izaak Walton of this good catch or whether it was her lord and master, who has walked off and left her all the dirty work of preparing the fish while he squats on the bench in the little summer house that forms part of the sea wall, and smokes.

Farther along the beach little smoke-houses sweat and smoke —veritable volcanoes of the trade! For it is part of the life that every cottage and community-housc should smoke its own winter supply of salmon. In the community-houses the fish is hung to smell and smoke anew over the perpetual flame that burns on the open hearth in the middle of the floor.

Such an odour of fish as greets the nostrils of a caller at the door of one of these community-houses! It takes courage to cross that threshold, and if in the middle of your call the chef of one of the many families, reaching aloft to the cross-pole from which the fish hangs, brings down a piece to cook over the altar fire, the smells which went before are as nothing to the vile odours now filling the room and lifting themselves to heaven through the hole in the roof.

In the community-house no one seems to mind, but all squat around in the semi-darkness and smoke, hugging knees and drawing on pipes, gazing in meditative silence at some old fellow stirring a pot of boiling rice perched in the elbow of the burning stump, with a wooden spoon, blackened and polished with age, and of a pattern suggesting the unearthed treasures of Thebes. Over at one side of the room, in a compartment partitioned off by cracker-boxes and blowing curtains, and all open on the side facing the fire, sits an aged woman, claiming to be a hundred years at least, and how much older—who can tell?—weaving pretty little baskets to sell to visitors from the boats. Despite her great age, the old woman has all her faculties and is really an interesting personality, dyeing some of the roots and straw and weaving fancy patterns into her basketry. In the room on the opposite side of the cracker-box partition, another woman kneels before a crude loom, on which hangs a half-woven blanket. From out the gloom of distance the man interested in the rice fetches an armful of sticks and under their influence the fire leaps into a big blaze, revealing more compartments in which women work, or sick children lie in bed looking wistfully at the leaping fire. In some enclosures no one is at home, but outside on the boardwalk in the dusk of the evening, wending our way homeward to our room in the old Mission-house, we often met the squaws returning from the woods, large hand-woven baskets of scarlet huckleberries, neatly covered with cool sprigs of evergreen, strapped to their backs by hand-embroidered bands of wampum. Next morning little pats of drying fruit, set breast-high on a clean pine board on a post between the sea and the boardwalk, with a man's hat and coat hung over them to scare off the crows of which there are great numbers at Alert Bay, give one an inkling that even the Indian woman has heard the echo of the "Preserve or Perish" slogan of her more southern sisters and is doing her "bit."

No one goes to Alert Bay and comes away without paying a visit to "Old Kitty"—a rheumaticky old soul squatting on the floor of a tiny cabin whose open door adjoins the boardwalk. Kitty loves tobacco! Her heart goes out to anyone bringing a present of the weed. Kitty also confirms one's faith in the In- dian woman's jam-making ability. Jars, bottles, bowls, old cracked cups and mugs, old spoutless teapots, etc., all overflowing with stewed fruit, stare at you from all directions. Tables and chairs are not popular with the average Indian. Kitty, squatting on the floor, pipe in mouth, has all her possessions scattered around her. The jam-pots flank the little floor-bed, outline the rude little pillows, are marshalled four-square against the mop-boards, and others more timid or worse cracked than their fellows are propped up behind the little old stove, itself dropping to pieces! Apparently Kitty is a happy old soul, with a great capacity for jam. One is puzzled to know how she gets sugar enough for it all, until one learns that she picks up a living by mending socks and stockings—everybody's in town, from the minister's down, at five cents a pair.

But Alert Bay food-producing and economy in food do not begin and end with Indians. The white man here takes a big hand along these lines. The salmon cannery collects fish for the home market and for shipment abroad, from motor-boat and kayak alike. The lumber-mill makes fish-boxes for the Canadian Pacific coast and with its waste the great mill warms the whole village without distinction of colour, setting free much coal for use in other parts of the country where wood is not to be had.

Wireless, too, does its share from its place on the top of the hill above the totems, to keep open and safe the navigation up and down this dangerous coast for the Alaskan ships carrying copper and fish.

For all emergencies there is a good-sized hospital. Here lumberjacks, meeting with an accident in felling or handling the giant trees and timber which are helping to give Canada a mercantile marine, are brought for medical treatment and care.

Alert Bay on account of its situation is a meeting-place for all sorts of interesting people. There is only one hotel and that, picturesquely enough, is the old Mission-house, which with its huge timbered ceilings and tales of early days and Indians would fill a book with sketches. Here over the crackling fire roaring in the great chimney-place "trail-beaters" for the woods, mines, or fisheries succeed each other in endless procession, yarning of experiences, as they wait for a steamer "up" or "down". Here is Canadian history in the making—yarns that are world-history, too. For men from this "company from the hinterlands" of British Columbia and Alaska who sat here by the fire often enough in the old days, have, many of them, travelled far since then, some never to return.

Truly the currents and cross-currents, as well as undercurrents, of life here are past finding out, and that is what lends atmosphere to this niche in the coast. If it lacked these mysterious happenings and these out-of-the-ordinary people, it would have no more charm than dozens of other places one could name. Life is never dull here, where action is the keynote and where extremes are always meeting. Alert Bay is an outpost truly Canadian, truly British. Therefore one is not surprised here, on stepping into the rectory drawing-room, to come upon a bit of our social life at its best; the rector's wife pouring tea for several of the teachers—the doctor who has dropped in from the hospital, a visiting minister and wife from the mainland, the cannery operator's bride, etc., with, over the teacups, the usual interesting talk.

A visit to the Indian agent's attractive home, redolent of cosy comfort, produces an equally good cup of tea and reminiscences of interest connected with the Indians for the past quarter of a century. At the Mission-house there's a scholarly old Scotsman of the clan MacLean and his wife "Becky", always ready with a story and tea, and making a real home at the old mission for men who are carving Canada's fortunes out of the northern wilderness. Indeed, you may sip your five o'clock tea in as cosy and homelike drawing-rooms and from as delicate china in Alert Bay as anywhere in Canada; which, considering its remoteness, speaks well for those who are holding this outpost of the red men with totem pedigrees! The Indians need, and deserve, a high standard. With their "family" they have an idea of what's what, and who's who. No one stands more on his dignity than an Indian! One Sunday afternoon we were received by the present chief and his wife. They live in a neat cottage, furnished with chairs, tables and rugs and having family portraits on the walls. At our request the chief donned his handsome official coat, covered with symbols of great snakes, bears and eagles wrought in beads. Courteously he explained the significance of each emblem. He also brought out a handsomely carved "speech-pole", taller than himself, and showed with pride the "copper", which is the most important emblem of office. For the "copper" he paid five hundred dollars. The chief speaks very good English, is a pillar in the church, and enjoys a potlach. In other words, he is a man of parts.

The potlatch is a giving-away feast among the Indians. Wishing to impress the tribes with the importance of himself and family, some man announces a potlatch. Frequently he spends thousands of dollars on his gifts—hundreds of sacks of flour or as many blankets as will reach from one totem to another half a mile away. China and glassware, pots and pans are favourite gifts. A roaring fire in a selected community-house, guests in costume, a wild-man hunt, braves dancing and a good wild time, lasting sometimes for several months. This is the potlatch—a sort of winter carnival. On the most important night the chief, donning his robes, enters, speech-pole in hand, and makes the address to his people. On these occasions he is accompanied by his wife and son, the latter wearing a robe embroidered in design with many pearl buttons, and on his head a heavy crown of yew-wood, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ornamented with sea-lion whiskers. The potlatch, however barbaric in its dances and roaring fires and flickering light and shadows, is now within civilized bounds when compared with the traditions of those of the long ago. The Indian is now beginning to see other more profitable ways for investing money. With his wider knowledge, comes a moderation of old habits. They do not now "potlatch" every year. The young folk are not enthusiastic, having other ambitions. Their friends and brothers were "overseas" in that strange, rare, old world of Europe in the Great War. Who knows what new ideas of life took root with every word that trickled to this people of the coast, from their "boys" at the front? The Alert Bay Indians never saw a train full of returned soldiers coming in, or a ship with men from overseas dock at Halifax, but they had a glimpse now and then of British naval authority in the rattle of a gunboat's chains coming to anchor in the little bay. None knew whence these little boats came or whither they went, but while in port, the gray hull and shining brass, angled-cannon, hour-bells and bugle-calls, were tangible proofs of that larger fleet which keeps England "Mistress of the Seas".

They know, these braves of the family tree, that the son of their agent, who lived down the "Avenue" and played with their lads as a boy, fought in the navy at Gallipoli. They know that their sons and brothers were at Ypres with the rector's son. who will never come back.

It is comforting to realize that the Canadian Government's confidence in the coastal Indian has not been misplaced. For not only did he serve abroad, adding fresh glory on the battlefields of France to the "totems" which are a landmark, not alone to his own people, but to the entire Pacific coast, but at home he was and is a food-producer, when it comes to salmon, of no mean accomplishments. And salmon, be it known, is an important item in the life of Canada.

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