Day 3: The Big House
It's made of rough red-cedar planks, silvery with age, about the same dimensions as a basketball court.
It emerges through the hard rain, a dark monolith amidst darker forest, the colors muted in the withering light of dusk.
On the walls are bold, impressionistic designs — rendered in charcoal black and blood red — of eagles, bears, and wolves, fearful and wild.
It's the Big House, a community center built by the Heiltsuk (a First Nations people of Canada) as their part of their recent cultural resurgence — a resurgence made possible in part through the efforts of The Nature Conservancy.
A Place to Make the Past Present
As the Columbia III pulls by the little dock at the mouth of the Koeye River, my colleague Richard Jeo (director of the Conservancy's Great Bear Project), an accompanying videographer and I are met by a gigantic dog aptly named "Bear," waving its plume of a tail in welcome.
Behind the dog approaches a slight man in a knock-off N.Y. Yankees baseball cap, slick blue rain-jacket and 70's style, large metal rimmed glasses, tinted dark. His handshake is soft, his voice low and lilting, musical even, as he introduces himself to us. I like him already.
His name is Martin Campbell. He is a Heiltsuk artist and caretaker of the small lodge near the Big House (Koeye Lodge), lost in isolation amidst a vast network of water, mountains, and forests. Apart from the Big House and lodge, there is nothing else around.
Before Western contact, there were probably more than 30,000 First Nations people living year-round within the Great Bear Rainforest. Big Houses dotted the coast, providing places for communities to gather, tell stories, and perform cultural or religious ceremonies.
Few exist today. And fewer still are actually in continuous use, as opposed to museum pieces or tourist attractions. In the wake of modernization, indigenous communities — not just in British Columbia, but also all over the world — have lost much of their cultural connection to their land and history.
Martin and other artists from the Heiltsuk have built this Big House because, in this little corner of the planet, they want to reconnect their people with what they have lost.
Historic photos — along with a few surviving elders and books — provided the model. Genetic memory provides the rest.
Inside an Ancient Culture
Martin shows us inside the Big House. It is hard to make out the forms and figures; there is no light except a skylight opening to allow smoke from the massive fire pit, now cold, in the middle.
There are massive wooden benches lining the walls. And at the far wall (where you would expect the altar to be in a church), there is a crest painted on the walls flanked by two giant totems — poles carved with forms and figures. Human forms transmuted into animal in the outstretched wings of an eagle, or the glaring eyes of a bear.
On the floor is a carved pole, an entire tree trunk stripped with a figurine on top. I am told that it’s a mortuary pole, rarely built anymore but once a common memorial marker to a great chief or First Nations citizen, erected with ceremony in places of prominence upon the champion’s death.
In the summer, Martin tells us, children’s camps are held, and kids and youth from all the nearby communities come to learn about the forest, salmon, dance, and culture. It is a Big House built for use, not show.
On the wooden drum (a giant log, actually) are strewn life jackets, in kids' sizes and colors, used maybe as seats. They look like prayer flags in here.
The Unanswered Question
There is an understated pride in Martin’s voice as he explains all this to us. The Big House is always being used, he tells us, for his people to learn their history and culture. It is a point he is keen for us to understand, standing here in the dark, cold, and empty place.
When I press him for the conservation connection of this effort, hoping for a sound bite like “this Big House is the key to conservation because…,” he demurs. “It’s a good question,” he volunteers, but clearly seems unsure how to answer.
The crew of Columbia III is eager to get underway to a safe shelter to ride out a coming storm. Koeye Inlet is too shallow for the ship in rough weather and our radio crackles, urging us to get back on board.
But I am reluctant to leave this place — still curious, still so ignorant about its meaning to those who have always lived here. As we walk outside in the last drop of light, I ask Martin about the imposing symbol above the door.
“What do you think it is?” he asks.
“An eagle,” I hesitatingly offer. “Yup,” he nods. “It’s what you want it to be.”
Some things, I suppose, you have to take on faith.
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