Yalis (Alert Bay)

Painting of Thunderbird and Whale at the U'mista Cultural Society Museum at Alert Bay. Photo by Dr. G.F. MacDonald.

The 'Namgis people originally lived at the mouth of the Namgis River (also known as the Nimpkish) on Vancouver Island. Being a coastal First Nation, the 'Namgis lived on the abundance of salmon, herring, and cod that the region provided while using the western red cedar for housing materials, canoes, clothing and blankets.

Like other Coastal First Nations, the 'Namgis suffered dramatic population declines due to introduced European diseases. It is estimated that the 'Namgis population decreased from 19,000 to 3,000 between the years 1700 and 1880 (HelloBC - Alert Bay).

In 1792 Captain Vancouver became one of the first Europeans to encounter the 'Namgis when he anchored near the mouth of Gwa'ni River and the village of Xwa̱lkw. The scene was recorded by expedition artist J. Sykes. Titled "Cheslakee's Village" after the 'Namgis chief, the engraving shows houses made of cedar planks and painted with geometric designs.
Cormorant Island and Alert Bay relative to the mouth of the Nimpkish River. Before the move, Cormorant Island was traditionally used by the 'Namgis as a seasonal home and a sacred resting place. Image Courtesy Google Earth

In 1870 a pair of entrepreneurs leased Cormorant Island from the government and established a saltery. In order to exploit the economic opportunities associated with the new industry, the 'Namgis moved their village to the island and established a permanent village at Yalis. The Kwakwaka’wakw name for the village, means,“sitting on the beach with legs spread apart in reference to the way in which the shoreline at the village is shaped ” (Chief Tommy Hunt, Kwagu'l tribe). The English name, Alert Bay, was given in 1860 after the British Naval Ship, the H.M.S. Alert, which had surveyed the coast in the mid eighteen hundreds.

The original houses at Yalis consisted of frames of stout posts clad in hand split planks up to 5 feet in width. With the arrival of a sawmill in Alert Bay in 1872, sawn lumber was used on false house fronts that were added to the old house structures (seen below).

View of Yalis from north end of the village. At this time the house with the Thunderbird design was the northern most house in the village. This design was later used to decorate the U'mista Museum. Photo by R. Maynard, 1874.

Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century there were a dozen large communal houses at Yalis. All were replaced with new structures during that period and many added one or more totem poles to the front of their houses. Many of the houses at Yalis added large figures including eagles, thunderbirds, Huxwhukw (or Hok hok) birds, and ravens, along with human welcome figures to signal ceremonies being held inside. The trend to elaborate the houses of chiefs with paintings and carved elements culminated in the house of Chief Wakas, whose house represented a raven whose beak opened and closed as guests arrived for a potlatch.

Chief Wakas' house complete with pole and painting. Photograph by H.I. Smith, 1909.
Chief Wakas' house after the beak had been attached but before the house front was painted. Photo by A.J. Brabazon, International Boundary Commission, ca. 1899.

"It was carved by Yukwayu for Wakas about 1899, who was quite old when he carved it. This was the first large totem pole at Alert Bay. Wakas paid 350 white blankets to Yukwayu for his work. This was a large price for those days, the value of a pair of blankets being $3 and when given away these blankets formed a big pile." (Chief Daniel Cranmer, 'Namgis tribe, in Barbeau 1950:673).

Laws prohibiting the potlatch passed originally in 1885 where fully implement in 1921 at an event sponsored by Chief Dan Cranmer at Village Island (ʼMimkwa̱mlis). The regalia of all participants was seized and sent to museums in America and Europe. The return of these treasures began in 1973 and resulted in the construction of the U’mista Cultural Centre which included a traditional style building as a museum. Please visit the U'mista Society's website to read more about this historic event and their ongoing efforts to repatriate the collection.

Today Alert Bay is the cultural and artistic centre of the Kwakwaka'wakw. It has a lively annual calendar of ceremonies that ensure the production of elaborate regalia continues, and also supplies outstanding works of art to private galleries in Vancouver, Victoria and Seattle.  

Box of Treasures: Gifts from the Supernatural at the Bill Reid Gallery is an exhibition of masterworks created for Kwakwaka’wakw potlatches by artist and traditional Chief, Beau Dick, Gigame Walis Gyiyam (Gray whale) and other Kwakwaka’wakw master carvers. Featured objects include ceremonial masks depicting the magnificent beings from the forest, the sea, and from the supernatural realm.

Work cited:

Barbeau, Marius. 1950. Totem Poles, Volumes II. Bulletin 119, Anthropological Series No. 30. National Museum of Canada, Ottawa

Hello BC's webpage on Alert Bay

Potlatch Collection History (U’mista Cultrual Society)

To the Totem Forests: Emily Carr and Contemporaries Interpret Coastal Villages (Yalis Page)