RESILIENT PEOPLE — When Virginia Eckert was still in Alert Bay, a historic totem pole-raising ceremony took place Sept. 18, 1970, in honour of Chief Mungo Martin (the Mungo Martin pole is the centre pole). “Not only was this chief an accomplished carver and song maker, he had fought successfully to secure recognition for the culture of his people.” (Jamie Guenther photo)
In the midst of cruel prejudice, a resilient people
By Virginia Eckert
“Out fishing last week with granny,
In the early 1970s I was hired to teach in Alert Bay, a First Nations
fishing village on Cormorant Island, off the coast of Vancouver Island.
It is home to the Namgis nation of the Kwakwaka’wakw people. I
frequently visit the Bay with family and friends; it is a true community
such as I experienced growing up in the Franco-American town of Berlin,
N.H. There we Franco- Americans were shamed into giving up our culture,
language and religion. The destruction of our way of life was not systematic
under the law and it won’t be restored.
My first ferry ride was very exciting; I embarked from
Beaver Cove, which, I believe, consisted of a dock, nothing more. Since
I could not find Alert Bay on a map, my heart leapt each time a large
rock formation appeared in the sea that mysterious night of my arrival.
When I took a wrong turn and ended up on the reserve in my white car,
I felt way too conspicuous. An Indian woman stuck a rifle through her
window and told me to “get
the hell” out of there. I swiftly made my way to my “teacherage,” a
basement apartment provided by the school for “outsiders” like
That evening the principal described the “savages” I
would be teaching. He suggested students would be climbing up the hill
to the school, located on the white side of town, on their hands and
knees covered with filth. How astonished I was to see the fresh, bright
young faces in my classroom, respectful and ready to learn.
Mr. Hood’s prejudice infiltrated many lives. He suggested I lower
my expectations of students and told me in an aside, his Native secretary
within hearing, that: “30 years ago these people were back in the
stone age.” Mr. Hood drove his Jaguar up and down an island three
miles long, and his car became the symbol of his condescension; he landed
his jet on a tiny runway built for single prop planes.
I came from Cambridge, Mass. and had worked in the anti-war
and Civil Rights movements, yet I had no idea what a residential school
was. I was unaware that more than half of my students lived in one and
that I was an agent of assimilation. In November I was invited to tour
St. Michael’s Residential School. The children in dormitories clung
to me like wet leaves, dozens of them clamouring for attention and affection.
Eighty per cent of the people in my hometown spoke “Quebec” French,
my dad’s first language; our families had emigrated from Canada
to the States. I understood what it was like to be treated as inferior
because my culture was different. The French were ridiculed unless they
could speak French as it was spoken in Paris and considered stupid just
as the children at St. Mike’s were whose first language was Kwak’wala.
In spring the teen fishermen on the gill netters left school for lucrative
work; their earnings would far surpass mine. Yet the principal was furious
that they had gone and saw it as a sign of their mistaken priorities.
When Mr. Hood strapped such students, they donned a mask to convince
their oppressor that they were invincible and hid their pain.
I was sick to my stomach each morning before leaving for work. One student
would check up on me whenever I was absent, and gave me a series of his
paintings which he urged me not to sell. Many students begged me not
to leave my job at Christmas, which they had learned to expect from other
teachers. I persevered as my commitment to them was unshakeable.
Mr. Hood’s dislike of me grew with leaps and bounds; he felt that
he and I weren’t “on the same page.” Unbeknownst to
me, the teacher evaluation he handed me when I left in June said in code: “Don’t
hire this woman.” A superintendent interviewing me for positions
in Vancouver told me never to show the evaluation to a school official.
A year later, the most accomplished Native teacher left the school due
to emotional trauma.
In my English classes I started showing films, which my
ally in the library ordered for me, on the history of the Indian since
colonization. I invited my students to write their responses to what
they saw. I gave one student her first A and she is a writer today documenting
I received invitations to potlatches held in the spiritual
centre of the enormous Big House. The rituals took place by firelight
and I was mesmerized by the dancers wearing elaborate masks, who brought
to life the spirit realm; they performed to music thousands of years
old. Art in this context was spiritual property, as were songs and stories.
The governance of the people, their marriages, births and lives of the
dead were all witnessed at the potlatch. The presiding chief was expected
to be a moral leader, to demonstrate integrity and governing ability.
On his spiritual journey through life, he was expected to divest himself
of all he possessed to ensure the survival of the next generation. When
the white man outlawed the potlatch he tore the spiritual fabric that
united the people. Missionary William Duncan wrote in 1875 that the potlatch
was “by far the most formidable of all obstacles in the way of
Indians becoming Christians or even civilized.”
While I was in the Bay, a historic totem pole-raising ceremony
took place on Sept. 18, 1970, in honour of Chief Mungo Martin. I saw
how vast the Kwakwaka’wakw community really was — canoes
crowded the beach well into the night as people gathered for the ceremonies
in full regalia, along with non-Indian admirers. Not only was this chief
an accomplished carver and song maker, he had fought successfully to
secure recognition for the culture of his people. Now the graveyard was
a kind of sanctuary, and the people a risen church. Mungo Martin held
the first public potlatch following the lifting of the governmental ban
on the potlatch in 1951 in the Big House he built in Victoria, B.C. For
this he was awarded a medal by the Canada Council.
There is a white man revered by the Kwakwaka’wakw. He isn’t
a holy man in the traditional sense. Franz Boas, known as the father
of modern anthropology, took a great interest in studying the Kwakwaka’wakw.
His was a lifelong relationship with the First Nations people of the
Pacific Northwest. He argued that non-literate and literate societies
should be analyzed in the same way; he believed in compiling lexicons
and grammars of the local language, recording myths, beliefs about social
relationship and even recipes for local cuisine. Boas relied heavily
on the collaboration of literate Indian ethnographers and, among the
Kwakwaka’wakw, he relied on George Hunt. He urged his students
to consider such people valuable partners, inferior in their understanding
of western society, but superior in their understanding of their own
In a letter to the New York Times in 1916, he wrote of
his growing discomfort with Caucasians’ beliefs about their own
superiority over others, and was critical of one nation imposing its
power over others. His advice to the black man was that he should not
look to whites for approval or encouragement, because people in power
usually take a very long time to learn to sympathize with people out
In 1886 the Chief of the Kwagu’l in Fort Rupert wrote to Franz
Boas: “We are told it is the Queen’s land. But where was
the Queen when our God gave this land to my grandfather? Do we ask the
white man, ‘Do as the Indian does?’ It is a strict law that
bids us dance.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology to indigenous peoples who
were part of more than 100 years of residential school atrocities June
11, 2008, in the House of Commons, was the first time a sitting prime
minister apologized to the first citizens of this country. The atrocities
of which he spoke certainly included the mysterious disappearance of
hundreds of First Nations children kidnapped from their homes (some estimate
that the death toll is somewhere between 35 per cent and 60 per cent
of the 150,000 children taken). Stephen Kakfwi, former premier of the
North West Territories and a residential school survivor, believes that
Harper’s apology was the end of national denial, and the beginning
of truth. It sparked The Truth and Reconciliation Commission event such
as the one held in Saskatoon June 21-24, 2012.
Franz Boas will never be forgotten in Alert Bay because of all he was
able to record of their history, culture and identity. He strongly believed
it was vital to comprehend the complexities of lifestyles we mistakenly
consider less evolved.
The Kwakwaka’wakw people hold within them the precious seed of transformation. This has allowed them to survive the authorities’ systematic effort to unravel their society, an effort fuelled by the authorities’ belief that God was on their side. This transformative seed growing today is a sign of hope to those in need; its power has rejuvenated a people designated for destruction. The light at the centre of the people gathered at the potlatch has unleashed such a powerful fire that it will be capable of guiding the Kwakwaka’wakw into the 21st century and remains a testimony to their resiliency.
Eckert holds a MEd in counselling psychology and has been a teacher/counsellor at a Catholic high school for 27 years. She lives in Vancouver and is married with three adult children.