Situated on Comorant Island is the tiny town of Alert Bay and the ‘Namgis First Nation, but despite the island only being about 4 square kilometres, it does hold one very large claim to fame. Located toward the northern end of the inhabited part of the island, standing in front of the Big House, is the world’s tallest totem pole.
Raised in 1973, the totem pole measures 173 feet but is made up of more than one piece of wood which apparently means some people don’t think it’s worthy of the title. It is also unlike most totem poles in that it does not represent one single family but rather different groups of the Kwakwaka’wakw. Whether you agree or not, the totem pole is certainly impressive and was very difficult to photograph due to its lofty heights!
The pole originally included the following crests. The tribes they represent are in brackets after each figure. Some crests are now very difficult to make out due to weathering and it appears as though the sun man is no longer at the top:
Sun Man (Quatsino), Kulusł: thunderbird’s cousin (Kwagu’ł), Whale (Gwa’sala-‘Nak’waxda’xw), An Old Man (Ławit̕sis), Wolf (Dzawada’enux), Thunderbird (‘Namgis), Dzunuk’wa, Sisiyutl: double-headed serpent (Mamalilikala).
It also depicts a bear holding a salmon, and a raven holding copper and a Dzunuk’wa holding copper. Having spent a fair amount of time in Alert Bay over the past year I have had the pleasure of attending salmon feasts where dancers have given thanks for the salmon. Some of my ‘Namgis friends have shared stories about the salmon and have helped me to understand how it connects to the land. Salmon is a staple food in the diet of many of us living on the North-West Coast. Copper is a resource that was seen as having supernatural powers and was given as gifts in the form of sheilds (or broken parts off of family sheilds) to demonstrate wealth at Potlaches. Both of these resources are important to the Kwak’wala speaking people.
With its rich resources all around, cultural tourism is a growing industry for the ‘Namgis people and the wider community in Alert Bay so there is much to see and do on the island. I will surely be writing more on this subject in the future.