Sacred Journey
Glwa, an ocean going canoe, painted by K.C. Hall with four crests — Killerwhale, Wolf, Eagle, and Raven, surrounded by the pillars of a λiác̓i (bighouse). Photo by Odette Auger

The resurgence of Indigenous canoes

‘The Sacred Journey exhibit is a physical example of Indigenous Peoples ability to adapt, adopt, and transform,’ says λáλíyasila Frank Brown of a new traveling exhibit just opened at the Campbell River museum.

Sacred Journey, a newly opened exhibit, showcases the resurgence of Indigenous canoe cultures and shares stories of Indigenous Peoples’ ability to adapt, adopt, and transform over time, according to one of the installation’s co-curators.

λáλíyasila Frank Brown describes the responsibility that comes with welcoming canoes from many nations to Haíłzaqv (Heiltsuk) shores during annual Tribal Canoe Journeys.

“How we travel and how we participate matters, doing it in the right spirit, for both hosts and guests,” λ.λ.yasila tells IndigiNews. “I’ve heard old people say, when you’re traveling, you’re not only representing yourself, you’re representing us, your family and your community, so you have to carry yourself accordingly.”

The hereditary chief of the Heiltsuk Nation played a key role in organizing the first canoe journey as a part of Expo 86, and the first Qatuwas — ‘people gathering together’ — in 1993, which then became an annual canoe journey which involves over 100 ocean-going canoes.

Λ.λ.yasila speaks about the vulnerability of the guest-host dynamic and how reciprocity is a key part of the celebrated canoe journey for Indigenous Peoples along the Pacific Northwest Coast. 

The Sacred Journey exhibit aims to capture and share the spirit of Tribal Canoe Journeys, honour the history and resurgence of the Glwa (the ocean-going canoe), and showcase the revitalization of cultural canoe practices for coastal communities, λáλíyasila says . 

‘We’re responsible for our own destiny’

Heiltsuk people have been occupying their remote (accessible today by boat or plane) maritime territory for more than ten thousand years — the ocean-going canoe an essential part of their lives and culture.

“Ultimately we’re responsible for our own destiny and the Tribal Canoe Journeys and the Sacred Journey traveling exhibition is a powerful metaphor and symbol of being able to continue to stay the course to stay alive — to hold on to the teachings that sustained us — long before the coming of the newcomers,” λáλíyasila says.

The exhibit will travel to 20 different venues over the next five years, starting with the Campbell River Museum. 

The exhibit itself centres on a stylized canoe painted by KC Hall with the four Heiltsuk clan crests and surrounded by the pillars of a λiác̓i (bighouse). Four cedar paddles line the sides of the canoe and there are interpretive cedar panels around the perimeter of the space. 

The exhibit involved collaboration from various Nations, including Liǧʷiɫdax̌ʷ, Homalco, Klahoose and Nuu-chah-nulth, and includes eight touch screens showcasing different canoe journey stories, λáλíyasila explains.

“The Sacred Journey exhibit immerses the audience into the world of Indigenous canoe culture of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Almost lost, the ocean-going canoe has seen a remarkable resurgence over the last three decades,” according to the museum’s website. 

Told by leaders and participants of today’s canoe resurgence, for the first time, the Sacred Journey exhibit unveils this amazing story through the Indigenous framework of núyṃ́ (stories) expressed through metaphoric art, immersive audio, and extensive video displays, and interactive experiences.”

There has been a great deal of interest in the exhibit from other organizations, including the Royal BC Museum and Science World, and some larger museums in Ontario, according to Erika Anderson of the Campbell River Museum.

The exhibit opened on July 17, welcomed by the Wei Wai Kum Nation. Children, including λáλíyasila’s grandson, cut cedar bark at the opening, to represent the actions taking place today for future generations, λáλíyasila says. 

“That’s who we’re holding up, our children, to support their strength and self-determination,” he says.

Photos by Odette Auger and (cedar bark cutting photo) Damien Gillis

Pulling together

Sacred Journey is a legacy project that has been in the works for the past seven years, since the 2014 Qatuwas Tribal Canoe Journey to Bella Bella, says λáλíyasila. 

“The theme of the Qatuwas in 2014 was a celebration of the big houses, potlatches, canoes, and upholding our ancestral laws and connecting to nature,” λáλíyasila says. “Our laws come from our relationship to place, our source of power, and that was basically the inspiration behind this.”

λáλíyasila and his wife and co-executive producer of the project Kathy Brown reached out to “likeminded people” from up and down the whole Pacific coast who were willing to share their perspective about their canoe experience, he says.

“From Southeast Alaska down to Oregon and other places where Indigenous people come from,” λáλíyasila says. “It was a total collaboration, so many people have shared their stories, our artists did the design work on it, it was powerful when we all pulled together.”

λáλíyasila says it’s a crucial time for these stories to be shared in this fusion of Indigenous worldview and cutting edge technology.

“To tell our story at an important time, when we’ve been dealing with so much as Indigenous people, as First Nations people, and this speaks to the resiliency of our people, our societies, our laws and our teachings,” λáλíyasila says.

Even though we have been subjugated by the forces of colonization, we still stand strong and hold onto those teachings that basically there’s a forced simulation policy, but we’re able to retain that. And not only retain it, but adapt, adopt and move forward.”

The Sacred Journey exhibit is a physical example of Indigenous Peoples ability to adapt, adopt, and transform, he adds. 

λáλíyasila speaks of the impacts of the ongoing pandemic, and the recent recoveries of children’s graves on the sites of former residential “schools.” 

“Finding our missing children has weighed on the hearts, minds and the spirits of our people and emotionally, it’s been really difficult,” he says. “And so it’s very timely to bring forward this message of renewal and empowerment and gain self-determination.”