Conjoined Cultures on the Cascadian Coast

Here’s a glimpse into the nature of ritual, a favourite human way of dressing the naked world in the stuff of the mind. Here’s the world, on Discovery Passage, on the East Coast of Vancouver Island. Note that it’s a horizontal human figure staring at the sky. This is ancient knowledge.
Now, compare the latest knowledge in the culture of the island: two richly decorated welcoming figures displaying family ancestry and cultural wealth from Kwakwaka’wakw culture, greeting visitors from the sea. Perhaps the stone heads above are an early incarnation of these figures, or perhaps they are a late one. Either way, the giant stone heads of Easter Island are similar, as they should be, given that the cultural similarities between Polynesian and Kwakwaka’wakw culture exceed 90%. 

It would be wrong to see a simple colonial story here. Look how the carvers have incorporated some good boat-building aluminum into their sculptures, to keep them out of the rot, and how the colonial culture in behind, has created symbolic structures of its own: a modern view rancher on the ridge to the left, an older faux-tutor one in the centre, and down at road level, a contemporary urban loft-and-garage style house: all, like the figures in the foreground, looking out to sea, all richly-decorated and even tattooed, and all laying claims to power. These are both cultures of display. Oh, and the view? Well, water, waves, gravel, driftwood and wind: the colonial verities, read by island culture as “the natural world of First Nations culture.”

I dunno. Some of those rocks are richly decorated, too.

There are older stories here, in which water is not water, stone is not stone, and display is not meant for the eyes alone. Look more closely. Old and new mixed together, really!

The modern colonial view is no less a ritual incantation. Look at this combination of industrial wreckage and mourning that has recreated this beach, with the same sense of a ritualized body looking out to sea.

And the same thing at the coffee shop a kilometre to the north. While the sea just keeps coming in, with waves cast off by passing barges on their way to Alaska. In which the people still wade.

Note the exquisite detail of colonial tattooing in this place, from the mouldering plaster of the Tudor house in the back, and its half-timbered, military cladding, to the shrink-wrapped, plastic cladding of the new loft-house, with its old growth pillars replacing the industrial driftwood of the shore, and its simultaneous display and privacy.

White culture here might desire to represent continuity with New York and London, and it does, kind of…

… but it has more in common with this:

Colonial and pre-colonial worlds are still speaking with each other. Bodies are still re-creating themselves as ritual objects in the world and are still facing the sea, and that sea, still, speaks back.

This relationship is not reducible, but we can live in it, together.

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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.