First Nations History and Culture


The community of Port Hardy is situated within traditional Kwagu’ł First Nation territory. It is also recent home to the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw First Nation. In 1964 this amalgamated tribe was forced to relocate from their traditional territories by the federal government, for ‘administrative’ reasons. The tribes were told that it would cost less for education, easier for medical help, and the government would help with housing, but it turned out to be a hidden agenda designed to assimilate the two tribes into Canadian society. Several years of threats and promises later, the Gwa’sala and ‘Nakwaxda’xw reluctantly gave in to the relocation, but the government didn’t keep their promise for adequate housing. There were five homes for over 200 people on Tsulquate Reservation. The Gwa’sala traditional territory is Smith Inlet and surrounding islands. ‘Nakwaxda’xw traditional territory is Seymour Inlet, the Deserter’s Group, Blunden Harbour, and surrounding islands.

Every corner of the Port Hardy region is enriched with culture and history. Starting with the two totem poles in Carrot Park, both carved and replicated by Calvin Hunt, a Kwagu’ł artist who is based in Tsax̱is. From here and along the seawall are interpretive signs with Kwak’wala words for various wildlife, such as salmon, bear, wolf, and orca. At the end of this walk is Tsulquate Park. From here you can see across the Queen Charlotte Strait; the ocean highway and lands of the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw.

After the end of the seawall walk, you can backtrack and head into the museum, which has exhibits on local First Nations history and art. Including 8,000-year-old artifacts found at Bear Cove, near the present day ferry terminal. This is the oldest archaeological find of human habitation on Vancouver Island (circa 5850 Before Common Era.) Along with the museum exhibits, there are books regarding the history, arts, and local plant life of the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw and surrounding nations.

A ten minute drive from downtown Port Hardy, in the neighbouring community of Fort Rupert, is the village of Tsax̱is. This is the current home of the Kwagu’ł First Nation. Here lies elaborated totem poles and the big house; a venue where First Nations ceremonies take place, such as the potlatch. The potlatch is a First Nations constitution that determines our politics, our government, our education, our medicine, our territory, and our jurisdiction. Potlatch is a complex event with several ceremonies, which are still practiced in buildings like the Tsax̱is big house.

On the front porch of the village of Tsax̱is is Tayaguł (Storey’s Beach). Along this waterfront were several villages, which are depicted on map (pictured below) by Mervyn Child, a Kwagu’ł artist. Across the way and middle of K’ak’a (Beaver Harbour) are Atłanudzi (Cattle Island), Ḵ’ut’sa̱dze (Peel Island), Ḵ’a̱msa̱x̱tłe (Shell Island), and Uxwiwe’ (Deer Island). Once the words are broken down and translated; the names of these islands are unique to their environment, as they’re part of a story which belong to the Kwagu’ł.

Despite the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw being the most studied ethnic group in the world, those research papers use past tense descriptive words. The Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw people, culture, and traditions are very much alive. Very little has changed since Captain George Vancouver ran aground on Map’eg̱a̱m (Deserters Island.) Perhaps a few place names have changed & villages (now called reservations) relocated, but the stewardship, culture, and people are still thriving.

“The ‘Kwakiutl’ are one of the most described and, hence, most widely known ethnic groups in the world. Yet, increasingly, people write about us and, apparently, think about us in the past tense. We are told that the Kwakiutl ritual art, technology, and religion were colourful and complex. It is as if our culture were gone. But we Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw are very much alive, and we abide in our traditional lands. Our culture retains many aspects of the ‘old ways.’ Because research should lead into understanding as well as to knowledge, we feel it is important, at the outset, to provide readers with our own perspective on our lands.” – Gloria Cranmer Webster.

About the author and photographer:
Gilakas’la. Nugwa’am Sarah. Gayutłan lax Dzawada’enuxw glu ‘Nakwaxda’xw. I’m a First Nations Storyteller and Steward, based on Vancouver Island. I take pride in being both Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw and Nuučaan̓uł. Website.