Alert Bay – The First Nations

One thing that Vinni and I have missed on our Alaskan journey is some history of the original population, the First Nations or Indians. They were spread over western Canada and Alaska and while they were not many in number, they lived throughout the area. They were hunters and fishermen. They did not have metalworking technology, although they did form some masks from copper they found on the surface.  Copper is easily malleable, even without using heat.  All their tools were made of wood, bone and the occasional bear claw.

The population consisted of many clans that sometimes made war on each other, but in general were peaceful.  There was land and game enough for everyone.  When the Europeans and the Russians arrived, they brought all their illnesses that the locals had no natural immunity to; smallpox and measles especially.  As a result, the populations were decimated, several clans dying completely out.

As I noted, Vinni and I have been looking for a good museum that told the story of the original population.  The museum in Victoria has a large exhibition, but unfortunately, it was closed for remodeling while we were there.  Aside from that there has been little informative.  There was a small exhibition in Ketchikan, which while interesting, did not encompass much First Nations, but was rather a history of Alaska with much more about the European settlement.  Luckily, we were told about Alert Bay on Cormorant Island.  Here, we found what we were looking for.

We sailed into the little marina and when we told the harbourmaster that we were uncertain regarding the length of our stay, he waved his hand and said we could stay as long as we wanted and just come see him before we left to settle our bill.

Wonderful to meet people who trust their fellow human beings.

The tribe that lives here (and has always lived here) is called ‘Namgis.  The island is filled with totem poles and there is a dense concentration of them in the traditional ‘Namgis cemetery.  Visitors are not allowed into the cemetery but we are allowed to stand outside and take pictures, which we did.

As you can see, many of the poles have fallen and lie neglected on the ground, just as many of the standing poles show clear signs of neglect and zero maintenance.  The ‘Namgis believe that the pole contains the spirit of the departed.  When the pole falls, the spirit has left.  Therefore, the poles are not maintained and once they have fallen, they are allowed to just lie there and decompose.  If you look closely at the pictures of the cemetery, you can see several poles that have fallen.

Along the coast of Alert Bay, there are five small pavilions.  Each building is adorned with a carving of an animal.  These are called Awakwas and symbolize the forefathers of each of the five ‘Namgis clans, known collectively as ‘Na’mina.

Gigal’gam is one of the clans and the word means “The First Ones”.  Their symbol and their forefather was the Thunderbird.  A Thunderbird resembles an Eagle but is big enough to lift a whale in its talons.  Oral history says that a human woman met the Thunderbird one day and the Thunderbird fell deeply in love with her.  He transformed himself into a human man and all Gigal’gam are descended from them.


T’lat’lamin was the Thunderbird’s younger brother.  He loved to dance, but had no one to dance with.  To cure this he transformed several sea gulls into humans, both men and women.  He then made himself into a man, fell in love and married one of the gull women.  T’lat’lamin means “Those that support”.  All the members of this clan consider themselves to be direct descendants of the Thunderbird’s younger brother.

His image appears here:


T’sit’salwalagame is the third clan.  Namxelagayu was a giant green sea monster.  After the waters of the great flood receded, he became a man and walked the earth until he met a woman.  T’sit’salwagagame means “The Famous”.

Look closely at his image and you can see a crystal set in the middle of his forehead, symbolizing his third eye.


Sisant’le are the “Sunshine Clan”.  Sisant’le was a supernatural being who was extremely warlike.  The older he became, the more he burned of anger until her finally became the sun.  One day a lovely swan came to his house on the mountain.  When the swan was touched by his sun rays, it became a beautiful young woman.  Desperately in love, he transformed himself into a man so he could be with the beautiful woman.  The Sisant’le clan claim to be descendants of the swan and the sun.  


Ninalkinuxw clan are descended from the wolf.  Their forefathers were gathered one evening for celebration and dance when a giant wolf came into the fire’s circle.  Everyone was afraid, but the wolf only came to dance with the women.  Legend says the wolf howled four times at the moon and the next day four of the women were pregnant.  Hereafter all Ninalkinuxw are descended from the wolf.


The clans still exist and if you are born into a clan, you remain in the clan until you die, unless you marry outside the clan.

There is a “Potlatch” museum here on Cormorant Island.  Potatch is the word used to describe the old ceremony that was held to mark all special occasions; naming of children, marriages, deaths and so forth.  The guests at these ceremonies were given gifts by the host.  The more and greater gifts the hosts gave, the higher his following status in the clan became.  During Potatch, all the clan’s masks and other regalia were brought out and used to tell the clan’s history through dances.

The Christian church attempted for many years to convert the locals to Christianity with greater or lesser success.  One rite that the church was not able to convince the ‘Namgis to drop was the Potlatch.  In 1884, the Canadian government passed a law outlawing Potlatch.  Because the law was poorly written, it was weak and not enforceable.  Later the law was rewritten and in 1921, William Halliday, the governments Indian Affairs Agent arrested 45 persons in Alert Bay for participating in a Potlatch.  He confiscated all the costumes and other regalia and sent them to the National Museum in Ottowa.  On the way to the museum, the Minister for Indian Affairs appropriated a large amount of the treasure for his personal collection.  In addition, he sold a large number of items to an American collector.

The laws against Potach were finally repealed in 1960 and the ‘Namgis began the long search to have their heritage items returned.  In 1980, the U’mista Cultural Center opened on Alert Bay where the majority of the traditional Potlatch regalia are now on display.  For the past many years, the locals here have held Potlatch dances twice a week, but because of Covid they have been cancelled for the past several years.

Everywhere on the island, there are totem poles.  Many of them are welcome poles outside private residences.  There are number of famous pole carvers living here and we saw many poles being carved.

Here are a few more poles, including the world’s highest totem pole.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s