U’mista – ‘the return of something important’

I wonder how long after the glaciers of the last ice age retreated from the coast that someone stood on the gently sloping pebble beach, dug clams at low tide, considered the sheltered aspect of the bay, the nearness of fresh water, and decided to stay.

That first visitor threw the shells from that first dinner onto the beach, as did his family, and then the clan that eventually came to live there. Over the millennia they became the Mamalilkukka people, and they named the place Mimkwamlis -‘the village with rocks and islands out front’, and the shells of the clams they ate were thrown towards the beach, creating a mound that grew ever larger over the centuries.

By the time the first Europeans stumbled upon the site, the village was perched atop an impressive twenty foot midden of composted clam shells. The debris of  thousands upon thousands a of dinners past creating a steep fortification. Although the people of Mimkwamlis were part of the the Kwakwaka’wakw speaking nation, and shared a language with their neighbours, not all of them were friendly.

The arrival of the strange men in their huge winged canoes, eager to trade for otter pelts was recorded for posterity in ochre on cliffs lying just to the south of the ‘village with rocks and Islands out front’,IMG_4114 and trade goods flooded the small village, including blue and white crockery from china which had, in turn, been bartered for otter pelts. When the crockery broke – it too was thrown on the beach.

The white men soon turned ugly, dispatching missionaries to convert the Mamalilkukka to their god, outlawing their potlatch ceremonies, and stealing their regalia. On Christmas day 1921 Mimkwamlis was the site of the largest potlatch ever held on the coast, and the site of the largest mass arrest for the crime of dancing and giving gifts (at Christmas !)

Whether it was those arrests, or the forced internment of the village youth in residential schools, or other ravages of colonialism that broke the back of the village, soon it was abandoned, leaving only ghosts, a huge midden, and a pebble beach scattered with broken pottery as the ever present salal began to reclaim the site.

A few decades passed until a then-young couple beached their kayaks on that pebble beach,IMG_4179  scrambled up the midden and pushed through the salal to see the remnants of the village- a couple of still standing house posts, and, in the underbrush, a toppled totem pole, a carved wolf head barely discernible under a thick coating of moss. Returning to their boats they stopped long enough to scoop a handful of  old pottery shards from the beach as a souvenir.

Two more decades passed until an opportunity arose for the no longer young couple to return to the village with IMG_3837rocks and islands out front, and as they packed their duffel for the trip, the thought occurred – what of those pottery shards that had sat gathering dust on a bookshelf for all those intervening years- after arriving by sailing ship, being bartered for pelts and used for many years before being discarded on a peaceful beach, would they be discarded again in a modern landfill when the time came for their executors to clear their home? Somehow it didn’t seem right – it was time for them to go home.

And so the shards went into the duffel,  and up the treacherous path to the top of the midden. The village site was much changed. It too was showing the decay of age. The wolf head totem  had vanished completely, crumbled into the forest floor,   IMG_4074

and salal had reclaimed most of the site,  but a pair of house posts still stood, and at their base,  in a shallow hole, the shards were returned home.


All but one.