In the time before the white man, in a world bounded by the sea and vast mountain ranges, in a land sparsely populated by small bands and tribes scattered like eagle feathers blowing in the wind, in a place where the bear and deer roamed and the rivers were rich with salmon, there were the people who spoke Kwak'wala. These were the people of the central coast of what we now call British Columbia, the people who ranged from the north tip of what the white man calls Vancouver Island to what is now the town of Campbell River, in small pockets of community on the east coast of the island and the west coast of the mainland.

These people, the Kwakwaka'wakw, the People-Who-Speak-Kwak'wala, lived a simple life. Men fished and hunted in a harsh land and sea filled with the dangers of the wild and wet. Women gathered wild fruits and berries, keeping family and home, caring for the aged and young while the men went out to hunt and make war. Food was plentiful and in the time when food was not to be gathered, men and women sought precious copper and shells for adornment and art. Beautiful woven boxes and clothing along with slaves and war tools were considered wealth yet the true way to show how wealthy they were was to give that wealth away, to share their goods and riches in potlatch. For to have something was useless if it were not for the giving of it.

The people of this land, bands with names like Kwakiutl, Mamalilikala, and Koskimo had lived in the land since the beginning of time. There was no land without the Kwakwaka'wakw. They were there before there was a before, when their ancestors came as animals by way of land and sea, or beneath the soils, arriving in that place and shedding their animal shape to become human. Thunderbird, seagull, orca, bear, and others came to an empty place and became people. Of course these Kwakwaka'wakw knew that there were other peoples around them and also knew that some of their ancestors came as men and women from other places and lands, across the sea and land, to be one of the people who spoke Kwak'wala.

Life was not an idyll; there were battles with the Haida of the north, the raiders of the open sea. There was trade to be made with the Tsimshian, the people who lived inside the Skeena River to the north, and the Salish living to the south. There were great trade walks to be made into the lands behind the mountains with tribes of men called Ktunaxa who the white man called Kootenay and the Okanagan and the Nicola. There were great houses to make out of the massive cedar planks torn from the forest giants, over 100 feet long and needing many men to carry. There were canoes to be dugout from that selfsame cedar, and totems too with history, mythology and family all tied together to tell a story.

It was not a perfect land. There was disease, war, hardship and all that humanity brings with it. Yet it was their land, the land of the Kwakwaka'wakw, a land that was open and free. Then the white man came. The white man brought them new tools, new religions, and gifts like alcohol and smallpox. Suddenly with the coming of these great ghost ships carrying men with no souls the land began to empty. Many people died from these new and strange diseases, diseases for which there was no resistance; the people who once numbered many thousands fell to hundreds and less. These new men with powerful weapons took what they wanted and killed those who stood in the way, those who fought for their land and their rights.

Then the land was no longer the land of the people who spoke Kwak'wala. Their lands were given new names, the names of white men, as if the white names were the only real names for things. Mamalilikala became Mamalillaculla, the closest a white man could come to speaking the true language. Islands gained new names like Gilford and Village Island, so named simply because the village of the Mamalilikala was there. Places of wonder and wilderness became things like the Broughton Archipelago and Knight or Kingcome Inlet. The white man took the lands of the Kwakuitl and Quatsino, kept the people from their potlatch and made them homeless.

It has been 200 years and more since the white man first came. Much of what once was of the Kwakuitl and Quatsino has been lost. There is work and effort to rebuild yet with so much time and loss there is little hope of saving the lives and histories and ways of the people who once held this land as theirs. Yet one thing remains; the land. This land remains as beautiful and haunting as it was before the white man came. The mists still hang over the sea and mountain. The rain still falls, tumbling as a waterfall from the sky or settling as a drifting drizzle, soaking deeply into all it touches. The salmon, deer and bear are still here and the eagle still flies, though not for want of destruction by the new tenants of the land. This land, not indestructible by any means, still remains, sentinel and warrior alike, protected by its remoteness and distance from the great cities of the south.

I have seen these islands and shores, these lands of the Kwakwaka'wakw. I love them, especially the Broughton Archipelago. I have seen, and perhaps begun to understand that myth and magic once filled this land, that it is a place not only of beauty but of wonder too. Sailing up on this region of the coast is amazing. It is a myriad of small islands, bays, coves, nooks and crannies. There are a thousand places to go, a million sights to see, beauty and wonder all around. I have sailed these waters, drifted with the tide, dodged the dolphins and watched the whales hunt and sleep. This land is not mine, but I am a part of it just as it is a part of me. I am the wind, the rain, the sea; I am the dolphin and the whale, the bear and deer. I am the rocks and rivers, the sky and earth. I am.


  1. Beautiful story Richard. You have so much literary talent.

  2. Nice article about an area I love, Richard. Thanks.