Sacred Journey exhibit at Campbell River Museum

Sacred journey exhibit celebrates Indigenous canoe culture

National Observer, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Nations and families from far-flung parts of coastal B.C. gathered to launch the Sacred Journey exhibit and celebrate the enduring importance of Indigenous canoe culture that stretches across the Pacific Northwest coast.

The traditional ocean-going canoe, or “Glwa” in the Heiltsuk language, is a way of life, essential to First Nations sustenance, social life, community culture and ceremony, said the exhibit’s executive producer Frank Brown at the Campbell River Museum — the first stop in the show’s five-year tour. 

“The story of the ocean-going canoe on the coast is all of our story,” said Brown, of the Heiltsuk Nation, who carries the hereditary hemas (chief) name of Dhadhiyasila (λ.λ.yasila), meaning “preparing for the largest potlatch.”

“The canoe made our society what it is,” he said to the crowd, which included members of the Nuu-chah-nulth and Heiltsuk nations, among others, as well as the hosting nation, the Wei Wai Kum

“It mobilized us, so we could harvest the abundance of the sea and the land to evolve to be great cultures,” Brown said. 

“Our common heritage of the ocean-going canoe, big houses and ceremonies, like the potlatch, is what unifies us as coastal Native people.” 

Canoe culture was nearly extinguished by colonialism, but it has made a comeback over the last three decades, particularly through the Tribal Canoe Journeys, which have sped a resurgence of Aboriginal culture and youth empowerment. 

The annual event, involving Indigenous nations across the Pacific Northwest coast from Alaska to Oregon, sees paddlers travel hundreds of kilometres to visit sister nations to foster solidarity and cultural exchange.

The Sacred Journey exhibit was developed to share the knowledge and experience of the ocean-going canoe through art, immersive audio, video displays, and interactive experiences from an Indigenous point of view, Brown said.

Its stunning art pieces include a monumental canvas canoe with four prominent Heiltsuk crests in striking colours painted by Heiltsuk artist KC Hall. The works of two other Heiltsuk artists, Chazz Mack and Ian Reid, are also showcased. 

Mack designed beautiful and ornate overarching house posts and paddles to accompany the canoe, while Reid carved an eagle-human transformative mask. Renowned artist Roy Henry Vickers created a moon and salmon logo for the exhibit, while Quadra Island metal sculptor Kevin Mackenzie designed a copper bow for the canoe and other detail elements of the display. The interactive audio and video elements of the show were produced by Greencoast Media. 

Hopefully, the Sacred Journey exhibit will provide viewers and other Indigenous people who haven’t experienced the transformative power of an ocean-going canoe, said Brown, who as a young man raised funds to carve a traditional canoe, and mobilized others to make a symbolic journey to Expo 86 in Vancouver.

Many people at the opening ceremony spoke of the life-changing effects that being part of the coastal “canoe family” had on them and thousands of youth in their communities. 

Shawn Decaire and Kwakwaka’wakw master carver hereditary Chief Bill Henderson shared stories of powerful experiences from crafting and paddling traditional ocean-going canoes.

Kwakwaka’wakw master carver and Wei Wai Kum hereditary Chief Bill Henderson spoke of the joys of carving and travelling in a traditional canoe during a journey to Bella Bella. 

“At every stop, there was a feast, and we’d sing songs,” said Henderson, adding a multitude of eagles flying overhead heralded the canoes’ arrival in Alert Bay. 

“It was all very touching and emotional,” he said. 

Shawn Decaire said spontaneously joining a canoe journey in 2001 altered the course of his life — putting him on a better path and forging his identity as an Indigenous man and his relationship to the songs and culture of his nation.

By the end of his journey, Decaire, who loved singing country music, had learned 30 traditional songs.

“And when I came back, I was really influenced to bring culture back to our village with our people,” said Decaire, who lives at Cape Mudge, a We Wai Kai Nation village on Quadra Island. 

The fact that the Sacred Journey exhibit, itself a legacy of canoe journeys, will travel the world is monumental and fitting, Decaire said. 

The exhibit will be shown at 20 different venues, including Science World, the Canada Science and Technology Museum, the Canadian Canoe Museum, and a number of Indigenous communities south of the border. Brown is hopeful the show will make it to Hawaii, as Indigenous Hawaiians were a mighty canoe-going culture, he said. 

Decaire refers to his canoe journey as a shared origin story that will now travel the world as the Sacred Journey exhibit. 

“It’s … our rebirth back to what was stolen from us,” he said, adding his family was severed from their traditions through the bitter legacy of residential schools. 

“In my generation, we had to fight to be cultural … today’s generation, they have a choice. 

“And it’s the greatest gift in the world.” 

Sacred Journey will be on display at the Campbell River Museum until early November. 

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