Respect paid to ancestors at Alert Bay ceremony

  • May. 30, 2008 7:00 p.m.

By Heather Ramsay-Stories have long been told about Haida coming up coast from Victoria with small pox and dying along the way, says Christian White, but no one ever really heard where they ended up. But thanks to a link between a young Haida carver and a carver from Alert Bay, a connection was made and now proper respects have been paid. Corey Bulpitt was apprenticing with Beau Dick when stories about Haida people coming to Alert Bay surfaced. According to Mr. Dick’s grandfather, a group of Haida came to Kwakwaka’wakw territory around 150 years ago. “It was the first time anyone said they knew where the Haidas had landed,” said Mr. White. They were all sick, so the villagers brought them to a place called Bones Bay. When they went back to check on them later, all the Haida had perished. Mr. White said people from Alert Bay formally invited the Haida to come and pay respects to their long-lost relations while they were on the islands for a Robert Davidson’s feast a few months ago. Around 60 Haida from Old Massett, Skidegate and Vancouver came for the ceremonies held on the May long weekend. Mr. White said preparations had begun almost a year before, as people carved masks and discussed the dances and the proper form of the ceremony that was to take place. Mr. Bulpitt, with the help of others in Alert Bay, created a mortuary plaque which was brought to the islands and displayed in front of Mr. White’s longhouse until they went to Alert Bay. The first part of the ceremony was held in Bones Bay, the remote site south of Alert Bay where so many Haida ancestors lost their lives. Mr. White said it took an hour and a half to get to there by boat and 100 Haida and Kwakwaka’wakw attended. They prepared a ceremonial fire and food offerings were made for all those who had been quarantined there. Normally, they would have taken the remains of their people home again, but because so many others had died there, they couldn’t take even dust, said Mr. White. A bentwood box was left open to collect the spirit of those who had died. The Kwakwaka’wakw lost 3,000 of their own, said Mr. White. Much of the history and connections between the Kwakwaka’wakw and the Haida were discussed during the ceremony and the welcoming feast held later in the Alert Bay Big House. Mr. White described the Hamatsa dancer (someone being initiated into a society), and the many masks danced, some one and a half metres long. The next day, Mr. Bulpitt’s plaque was raised on a fluted column among the mortuary poles in the village’s burial ground. Mr. White said the carvers danced before it was raised and elders from both the Eagle and Raven clans cleansed the pole with cedar boughs. That night the Haida hosted an event in the Big House. An End of Mourning ceremony included the dancing of a new small pox mask and a male and female ancestor mask. After that the Tluu Xaada Naay dancers performed several more celebratory songs and new white raven, moon and eagle masks were danced. It was the first time many had visited Alert Bay, although some had been to residential school there so many different emotions were swirling, said Mr. White. “It was important to recognize each other. Long ago our people made peace with each other,” he said.