As the ferry pulled away from Port McNeill, we climbed onto the upper deck and looked south, across the Georgia Strait to Cormorant Island, where the tiny community of Alert Bay stretches along the eastern shore. In all directions, we saw icons of the West Coast: orcas and seals in the water, morning mist rising amongst the fir trees, and more bald eagles than we could count.

As the ferry approached Alert Bay, the individual buildings grew visible. Colourful fishing cottages, a walkway, businesses and the Big House, its front decorated with a Kwakwaka’wakw-style orca, stretched along the shore. The brick facade of the old Residential building had been left to crumble, but next to it stood the sleek, modern cedar front of the world-renowned U’mista Cultural Centre.

“Kwakwaka’wakw culture is a living culture, and an essential part of present day; it’s not something that you read about in a book but no longer exists,” says Sarah Holland, executive director of U’mista. The cultural centre holds the community’s collection of masks and regalia, some of which are hundreds of years old, and these remarkable pieces represent a story of loss, reclamation, and pride. After the masks were confiscated in 1922, they were distributed to museums, art galleries and collections around the world, but in 1980 the repatriation of these objects began. Gathering them home was not an easy feat.

“U’mista’s collection is powerful in telling an epic tale of resistance and resilience,” says Holland. “Getting this collection back from museums and organizations around the world was an incredible feat. The Kwakwaka’wakw were even able to negotiate and reclaim items from the British Museum—something which the government of Greece is still trying to accomplish with the Elgin marbles.”

The upper hall provides a children’s area and an informative film about potlatch traditions, while the lower hall has art displays and a spectacular array of masks, from animals and humans to mythological figures.

“The masks here don’t just sit on the shelves, but are living history in object form,” says Holland. “They provide a direct link to ancestors, and are a vital way of telling a family’s history. They are still used in potlatches, and are still an integral part of a living tradition.”

To accommodate families with young children, along with the children’s area, there are plans to build up the hands-on exhibit over the next year, adds Holland. “Right now there are books, a craft table, educational toys, and as the area grows, we’ll have regalia to put on, things to touch like ermine pelts, ways to make it more interactive. We also have free educational programs for classes, school groups, and organizations.”

U’mista is located in Alert Bay, a short ferry ride from Port McNeill, five and a half hours north of Victoria. Although the museum is open, the main collection—the Potlatch Collection—is not available for visitors until early next year due to a fire in the main gallery which requires substantial building work and conservation work to the masks. For more information, visit web link or phone 1-250-974-5403.

Kim Bannerman’s work has appeared in 100 Stories for Queensland (eMergent Press, 2010) and the Paraspheres Anthology (Omnidawn Press, 2006). Her most recent novel, Bucket of Blood (Fox&Bee, 2011), is a Vancouver Island-based murder mystery. Visit web link or web link.