How a Vancouver Island First Nation is Reclaiming its Land and Inviting the World to Visit


It’s impossible to tell whether the waves are dancing to the beat of the drum, or if the drummer’s hands are following the rhythm of nature. And maybe that’s the point, because according to the teachings of the Huu–ay–aht First Nations, everything is one. The waves come rolling in over the rocks; with a sigh, they release a constellation of droplets that ride the wind into the trees, pulling the scents of salt, sand and cedar into the sky. The drumbeat stops. But the Pacific Ocean keeps dancing to the rhythm of nature.

Trevor Cootes, a councillor with the self–governing Huu–ay–aht, stashes his drum. For as long as his people’s history has been shared through song and dance, this sheltered cove has been known as Kiix̣in (pronounced “kee–hin”). “It was one of our main villages,” he says of the site, which overlooks the Broken Group Islands on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Cootes strolls along paths recently delineated with sun–bleached oyster shells that guide visitors through this national historic site. “Our ancestors lived here in longhouses during the whaling and fishing season,” he says.

Kiix̣in is ancient — archeologists have dated the history of human occupation here to at least 5,500 years. But it’s also an emblem of the old becoming new again. The village has receded into the forest, fallen house posts serving as reminders of a rich culture but also as nurse logs for saplings striving to touch the sky.

July 1, 2019
Glen Friesen

The ancient village and fortress of Kiix̣in was abandoned in the 19th century. It’s the only place on Vancouver Island where you can still see remnants of old longhouses, such as this entrance archway.

Zoom out from this oceanfront idyll and you will notice that Kiix̣in itself is a giant nurse log for a different resurrection. The Huu–ay–aht are charting their own course thanks to a 2011 land claims agreement that gives them the right to form their own microgovernment, subject to federal and provincial laws, and to make their own economic decisions. “Our goal is to recover in the next 15 years what we have lost during 150 years of colonialism,” says Cootes. “Kiix̣in is part of the restoration.”

Kiix̣in is the crown jewel in a strategy to create jobs and bring visitors to Huu–ay–aht territory. Under the modern land claim, the Maa–nulth Final Agreement, the tribe no longer receives government cheques. Instead, it is developing revenue streams on its own terms. “With the treaty, we can finally do what we want and build our three core principles — Everything Is One; Respect; and Taking Care Of — into all we do,” says ƛiišin (Tliishin), a.k.a. Derek Peters, head chief of the hereditary council. “None of this was possible under INAC [Indian and Northern Affairs Canada].”

The hereditary council is made up of seven chiefs; ƛiišin has been head chief, the senior Tayii Ḥaw̓ił (Tayii Hawiilth), since 2008. There is also a council that is elected every four years, but it is the hereditary chiefs who review laws and high–level plans, look after cultural heritage – dances, songs and stories – the passing down of traditional names and the protection of sacred places. “While we didn’t get 100 percent of our traditional territory back, we have full control of our treaty settlement land, harvesting of resources and investment in economic development,” ƛiišin says.

The name Kiix̣in means water flowing over rock. It is the place the Huu–ay–aht people historically lived during the whaling and fishing season. These whale bones are the leftovers of a successful hunt.

That development includes creating a sustainable economy based in large part on tourism, enabling a move away from a reliance on logging. It’s an ambitious scheme that aims to draw travellers to Kiix̣in and to any of the 11 tourism–related businesses the tribe recently purchased in the nearby town of Bamfield. These include a fishing lodge, a motel, a restaurant and a variety store. “The ultimate goal with self–sufficiency is to preserve Huu–ay–aht culture and for that we need people to move back home,” says ƛiišin. There are about 850 Huu–ay–aht citizens in total: around 100 live on the reserve in Anacla, the site of the tribe’s main government office. A smattering live in Port Alberni, home to the second government office, and the rest are in Victoria, Vancouver and elsewhere.

Already there are signs the strategy is paying off. Hinatinyis, a.k.a Brittany Johnson, returned to Port Alberni from Victoria to take on a job as the tribe’s language and history coordinator. Her name means she’s always welcoming. “I’m one of the success stories,” she says. “I’ve been able to move back home and find employment with Huu–ay–aht First Nations thanks to the treaty. Huu–ay–aht will create an opportunity for you if you ask and if you want to be here.”

Hinatinyis is also studying the Nuu–chah–nulth language in a pilot diploma program through the University of Victoria — thanks to funding made available under the treaty to preserve language and culture. “There’s a lot of pressure on the learners, because we are not just taking Spanish so we can go to Mexico on vacation,” she says. “When I moved back to Port Alberni, it was with the goal of eventually becoming a council member and serving my people. We have a modern treaty; I’m a modern, young woman, and I feel I have a lot to bring to the table in a young treaty nation.”

Visitors can experience Kiix̣in by joining a free official tour. Wišqii, the speaker for the head hereditary chief, is also the tour’s lead guide. He brings Huu–ay–aht history to life through song and storytelling.

Ayanna Clappis is a student at the University of Victoria, and studies political science and the human dimensions of climate change. In summers, she goes back to Anacla, where her immediate family on her mother’s side lives. “One summer, I worked as an assistant tour guide in Kiix̣in, which gave me an opportunity to learn about my culture at a time when I was wondering about my identity on a deeper level.” Clappis hopes to be able to move home to Huu–ay–aht territory when she graduates. She recognizes there are still prejudices toward Indigenous people, but feels Kiix̣in has the power to change that. “If we want to move forward, there needs to be a reckoning with those truths and settlers questioning their own family histories so that we can work toward greater mutual understanding and relationship building.”

Wišqii (Wishkey), a.k.a. Robert Dennis Jr., agrees. “Kiix̣in represents a chance to reclaim our history and move toward reconciliation — to help us write a new story and find a way forward.” Wišqii is the speaker for the Tayii Ḥaw̓ił, but also the lead guide for Kiix̣in tours and a guide for his people. His name means he who thinks before he speaks. “Because there’s such a disconnect today with our culture and language as a result of colonialism, residential schools and potlatch bans, my role is also that of interpreter,” he says.

On the way to the cove where Kiix̣in once overlooked the Pacific Ocean, visitors pass culturally modified trees — cedars that have been stripped of bark used to weave baskets, hats and more.

When Wišqii takes people to Kiix̣in, whether Indigenous or not, his goal is to bring Huu–ay–aht history to life. “In the past, we had no written language, so the speaker was the keeper of the stories, songs, dances and art.” He explains that an official visit to the seaside historic site starts with a feast song about learning to hunt and survive. “Once we arrive at the beach, I do a paddle song that we would sing in the Klee–Klee–Ha, our lightning canoe, to move in unity. The main event and the last song is about coming to reclaim my house.” For Wišqii, Kiix̣in is not just an archeological site; it’s an opportunity to connect with the past. “When I’m at Kiix̣in, I know the ancestors are watching through the raven and the eagle,” he says.

Or as Chief ƛiišin puts it: “Kiix̣in is the only place on Vancouver Island where you can still walk among the structural remains of an ancient culture.” Kiix̣in is a sacred place where everything has the potential to become one again, where the Huu–ay–aht are once again dancing to the rhythm of nature.