I’m in a small tour boat near the northern end of Vancouver Island when six orcas cruise past, their sleek dorsal fins slicing through the waves. “Aboriginals consider orcas guardians of the sea,” says Mike Willie of the Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw First Nation and owner of Sea Wolf Adventures in Port McNeill. “When a hunter dies, he’s transformed into an orca.”
This is just a tiny portion of the many cultural insights Willie shares during our wildlife-viewing tour of the Broughton Archipelago. As we sail along, his reverence for nature shines through, as does his desire to further the offerings and impact of Indigenous-based tourism experiences in the area. “We have a different kind of capitalism [here]. I will cut my pay so relatives can work,” says Willie. “As Aboriginal tourism grows, I want to inspire more of our people to get into it.”
Indeed, in my own long-time quest to delve deep into coastal BC culture, it has become increasingly clear that the Indigenous peoples on and around Vancouver Island are excited to share their rich traditions through an ever-increasing variety of tours, attractions and legendary sites. Following are just a handful of suggestions for notable places to visit and experiences to relish.
Art and Adventure in Tofino
On the west side of Vancouver Island, where large waves break dramatically on stunning sandy beaches, sits the booming town of Tofino, home to Roy Henry Vickers’ iconic art gallery, Eagle Aerie. Built 30 years ago by Vickers, with the help of his family and a local Indigenous carver, the structure resembles a traditional Northwest Coast longhouse. Inside, its walls are adorned with Vickers’ paintings, prints and carvings.
Tofino’s Eagle Aerie Gallery. Photo by Jennifer Stevenl Roy Henry Vickers Gallery.
An acclaimed artist, Vickers is also a celebrated storyteller. Try to time your gallery visit so that it coincides with one of his regularly scheduled storytelling sessions. Gather with other visitors around the centre pit of the longhouse, surrounded by paintings, canoes and huge cedar beams, then close your eyes and listen to Vickers’ deep, raspy voice as he shares fascinating legends of the Northwest Coast.
Climb into a traditional cedar dugout canoe for a special Coastal Canoe Tour of Clayoquot Sound, led by a Nuu-chah-nulth guide who will provide a First Nations perspective of the area, including interpretation about the ecology, history and culture. (Visit tofinopaddle.com for more information.)
Paddling on a T’ashii Paddle School Harbour Tour. Photo courtesy T’ashii Paddle School.
Celebration in Victoria
Victoria has a variety of memorable, Indigenous-focused attractions, including the First Peoples Gallery in the Royal British Columbia Museum, where vivid exhibits lead you through centuries of Indigenous history and culture in BC.
A Lekwungen dancer at the Aboriginal Cultural Festival. Photo courtesy Indigenous Tourism B.C., photo by Melody Charlie
The museum also hosts the annual three-day Aboriginal Cultural Festival (held each June), which is among the best and most energetic showcases of Indigenous culture in Canada. Join the immense crowd as dance groups from the two host nations (the Esquimalt and Songhees nations) and many traditional territories around Vancouver Island don colourful masks to bring real and symbolic creatures to life on stage. Faces are fierce with paint, rattles jangle, spears are shaken and drums and throaty songs boom.
The festival also includes a marketplace that sells authentic Indigenous works, a dining area where you can sample traditional fare (including fry-bread) and educational tours of Thunderbird Park with its 12 towering totems.
An hour’s drive north of Victoria, Duncan was designated The City of Totems in 1986 after raising 80 totem poles to honour the Quw’utsun people. Throughout the downtown core, and just outside of it, yellow footprints on the sidewalks will lead you from totem to totem. Don’t miss Cedar Man Walking Out of the Log, which is deemed the world’s widest totem pole (1.8 metres in diameter).
Totems at the Royal British Columbia Museum. Photo courtesy Alamy.
Ancient History on Quadra
On Quadra Island, in the village of Cape Mudge, you’ll find a treasure house of Indigenous artifacts and history at the Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre. It was first opened in 1987, with the primary mission of revitalizing the Kwakwaka’wakw culture and repatriating artifacts from the Sacred Potlatch Collection.
Wander the centre’s main and upper galleries to gaze at more than 500 ceremonial pieces (including 16 totem poles) on display; each piece in the collection has a connection to a member in the community.
Cultural artifacts of a different form can be found just outside the centre and all over Quadra; keep your eyes open for more than 100 ancient petroglyphs carved onto boulders. Dated between 2,500 and 3,500 years old, these petroglyphs are testimony to the millennia that Indigenous peoples have thrived here.
In Campbell River on Vancouver Island (a 10-minute ferry ride from Quadra), visit the stunning First Nations hall at the Campbell River Museum, which includes a variety of artifacts that span 9,000 years, as well as the Treasures of Siwidi presentation, in which 25 masks are illuminated one at a time as an Elder tells the story of an ancestor named Siwidi who embarked on an undersea quest and encountered a variety of supernatural creatures.