Big House

23 Aug: Klemtu

This morning I woke to find my eyes having spasms – they both kept moving to the right, outside of my control. It took a minute or so for it to settle down but it finally did. Then, when I went to get up from the sofa cushions I had a couple of weird dizzy spells – if I put my head down slightly I’d lose balance completely and had to sit down again. I wondered if that was the beginning of a stroke and thought to myself ‘interesting, was that dream prophetic in some kind of way?’

Without a worried thought in my head (but with another reminder that my life expectancy was pretty random and could end anytime) I waited until my balance was under control again then went upstairs to see what the rest of the crew were up to. Not much apart from reading and chatting. I went outside for some fresh air and saw a humming-bird – my first ever. It was such a delicate and quick little bird. I first caught sight of a fast little bird crossing the road and it suddenly stopped and hovered in front of one of the pink flowers of Rosebay Willow herb plant just outside the house. What precision to go fr bearsom fast flight to a precise hover.

Klemtu is the home of two tribes: the Kitasoo and the Xai’xais. These two tribes live together and are jointly governed by the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation. There have been reports of Sasquatch sightings and the area is home to white bears (Kermode), also called Spirit Bears.

I found out that we had been invited to a community meal and, later, a celebration at the Big House at the other side of the bay. Chris said that this is a great honour and I am looking forward to it very much: my first experience of First Nation hospitality in Canada. I’d met First Nation people in the UK but didn’t get chance to learn much or to get to know them very well. The youths from the Penticton Band came over to Orkney to see the landscape and culture and to share their own culture with the local people. The whole event was a great success and some lasting connections were made. One of my hopes is to be able to have a hand in making that kind of connection with youths from other areas – hopefully to encourage youths from Orkney to visit Canada and the First Nations people in BC. I certainly believe that there is a need for such connections and that I can make a difference – this is a potential nursery tree for me to leave behind one day. I hope I can create a place where people can share and connect with others who believe in the value of this kind of youth exchange: a web community. Although we, as humans, are profoundly alone, we are also brothers and sisters and get an incredible amount from connecting as much as we are able with others. It is by acknowledging and exploring our differences that we can grow as individuals and communities – I have seen this in my continuing journey with the Spirit Dancer canoes.

Long House: a community house that served in the past as accommodation and a centre for cooperation. has two or more fires.

Big House: a longhouse that only has one fire.

My first deep connection with someone from Klemtu came today when me and Chris went to see one of his old friends, and elder, who had met Chris a few times before and showed incredible hospitality – like most of the First Nation people that I’d met so far. Unfortunately his health was poor and he was not very mobile – this did not stop him inviting us into his home and asking his wife to make some tea for us. We were told that there was a meal to be held in the community centre for us and some of the local people and there would be lots of local fish dishes. I thought to myself, ‘better not eat too much today and make room in my stomach for some delicious food tonight – and perhaps prepare myself to eat something that might qualify as a delicacy (i.e. tastes disgusting but highly valued by local people)’.

While I sat ashore and my new eyes absorbed the scenery, and my worried stomach contemplated the delicacies of the evening, some of the crew went for a short jaunt down the coast – some walked and some paddled and both were to swap modes of transport at the far end.

Some of the crew off for a short trip up the coast

Some of the crew off for a short trip up the coast

There was a sedate pace of life here in the village, as there was in Hartley Bay, but here it was more normal because most of the population was here. There were no traffic queues, no boy racers, no overpowering advertising brands, no insulting youths… in all, it was quite a contrast even considering Kirkwall in Orkney where youths are relatively tame and most shops are not ‘in your face’. There was a feeling here that the place and its people blended in with the nature surrounding it. Okay, there were the building sites, waste ground, and rubbish piles, but even those were low-key. The people here seemed to be here. In other places people always seem to be trying to be elsewhere – work, shopping, playing computer games, watching television. People in more ‘western’ places seem to have a neurosis that forces their attention to be always in front of them at the ‘what next’ rather than the ‘what is’. I often catch myself walking down the street and I’m going somewhere – my mind is going ahead of me, not with me. My mind is going down three or four paths: ‘where next, what if, ‘what for’, and, perhaps, ‘how else can I get there’. It is not appreciating the ‘where I am’ part of the journey and is oblivious of the beauties (and hazards) of the moment. For most it’s the destination that is important, not the path on the way; and once they reach the destination, another one takes its place and again the mind departs the moment and craves to be elsewhere. Thus do we ever really have the feeling of having arrived anywhere or is a part of our mind, at least, always preparing for the next future event (which never really comes)? The people here seem to be more here than most. But, then, being here can also be a bit like the hovering of a humming bird inside one’s mind, can’t it.

The community centre was fairly ordinary, with a stage set above a large floor area. There were about twenty tables lined up with chairs, and there were about thirty or so people scattered around the tables, chatting and watching the children run around and play with their toys.

Before the meal, we were told, it was good for guests to mingle and introduce ourselves and not for us to stay in a group at one table. This was good, and I am glad that we were told this because I discovered that the local people were very gentle and friendly even if their faces were immobile (as if they were unhappy or hostile). If I had allowed my usual, perhaps English, reserve to rule I’d never have talked to anyone apart from the rest of the crew and one or two of the people who had talked to us previously. But mixing in this way was good, and people were surprisingly open about themselves.

The meal was fabulous: both in taste and quantity, and there were only one or two delicacies to force down. I’ve never before seen so many ways of using parts of a fish, and never thought there so many different tastes associated with fish.

After my third helping I heard Chris calling us all up, the crew, in front of the stage. He introduced us one by one and said a few words about where we came from and then after asking himself under his breath almost whether someone else in the group would like to say something, he suddenly gave the microphone to Marilyn to my left. I started to realise that that microphone would inevitably, robotically, pass down the line and everyone would have to say something – even quiet old me. However, my fear melted away as my new part heart told me ‘nothing to fear’. After all, I’d started to use new eyes, why not a new heart too? The sound of applause brought me back to the present and I found the cold plastic of the microphone in my hand (thanks Marilyn) and I started to speak. After hesitating a moment I could feel the connection with these people in front of me and I just wanted to tell them how I felt, and that was easy. I was moved by them and how they lived; I wanted to help them in any way I could; I wanted to share this experience with people from Orkney and other places. Tears came to my eyes and my throat seemed to solidify when I realised that, in a way, I was not alone anymore and, if I wanted it, I had a new family, if only for a while: I could see it in their eyes and their concentration on my words. There were no yawns, no distracted chatter, and even the kids were quiet – mostly. I was deeply moved – I instinctually I looked around for a dark hole to hide in but, finding none I quickly passed the now very hot plastic microphone to Kathleen and bowed my head to the applause and smiles.

We moved from the community centre to the Big House to await the dancing and drumming. The Big House was very impressive: there was a large sand-covered floor space with the stone circle of the fire pit in the centre. Both ends were dominated by large wooden sculptures in the form of totem-poles with various animals depicted colourfully in the cedar. And on either side were rows of benches – well also (I think) made from cedar. I took a little time to absorb the atmosphere and take some photos before the celebrations began.

Klemtu Big House

Klemtu Big House

Two groups of tourists came into the Big House after us and sat on the benches one side – all apart from one man who went and sat on the opposite side on the top row. I always find it interesting how people are frightened of behaving in a way that makes them stand out from others; and how, when someone does have the courage to act differently we can dismiss that person as possessing some negative personality trait such as arrogance or dim-wittedness. Rarely do we think ‘well done, someone has finally found the courage to do what I wanted to do’ (perhaps what many people wanted to do).

The dancing was much as I expected from having seen similar dances performed in Orkney by the Penticton youth but here is was more powerful and meaningful because of the space within and outside the Big House. Of course the older members of the cast were the most graceful and showed the dance for what is should be but it also raised smiles to see the younger members take part – especially the young girl who kept tripping over her own feet without any embarrassment at all.

The night was topped up by first a challenge (men versus women chanting) and lastly by Chris sharing his canoe song.

All spent, we returned to the house and had our various teas and went to bed, some of us with small grins inside our heads.

This entry was posted in Canada. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Big House

  1. kye says:

    Just let me say that the thing with the eyes is not serious – only a side effect of the sleeping pills. I didn’t know this at the time though.

Leave a Reply