A longhouse display set up by Tla-o-qui-aht artist Hjalmer Wenstob as part of Ucluelet’s Indigenous Culture Crawl festivities at Seaplane base Field on Saturday night was damaged sometime between Monday evening and Tuesday afternoon. (Photo - Andrew Bailey)

UPDATE: Artist says display tents recovered in Ucluelet, but damage to longhouses still unexplained

Cedar longhouse fronts were set up as part of Indigenous Culture Crawl event.

News of an extremely disheartening theft in Ucluelet shook through social media on Tuesday night as Tla-o-qui-aht artist Hjalmer Wenstob reported a First Nation longhouse display he had set up at Seaplane Base field had been vandalized and the display’s tent-covers stolen.

Wenstob told the Westerly News Wednesday morning that the tent-covers had been recovered and were not stolen, but rather taken down by volunteers setting up an outdoor movie event at the field on Sunday night.

“They are safe and sound,” Wenstob said of the tents. “I guess they might have blocked someones’ views so the volunteers decided to take them down, wrap them up nicely and store them safely for us. The only problem was there was no knowledge of that, or communication of that.”

Thinking the tents had been stolen, Wenstob reached out through social media in an effort to retrieve them and was overwhelmed by the support he received as his post was shared throughout Vancouver Island.

“People were even putting out offers to buy new tents for it because they loved the project so much,” he said. “All the community stepped up to be supportive and share kind words.”

While the tents’ recovery is a happy ending, the damage done to two cedar longhouse fronts though, remains a mystery.

The longhouse fronts were not taken down during Sunday’s movie event and Wenstob said they were still erected in the field early Monday evening. They were discovered damaged on Tuesday night. The fronts are free-standing, but the weights were taken off of one and it was knocked over. Wenstob said screws had been removed from the knocked-over front and boards were cracked and broken.

“That’s the next question I guess. I’d love to say it wasn’t vandalism and I’d love to continue that thought in my head with the tents coming home safely. It could have been a mistake by somebody, or it could have been an accident, but it’s a difficult accident [to believe] when a large majority of screws were removed,” he said.

“It seems weird that anyone would take the time to start unscrewing or unbolting the structure, so there’s a few questions. But, I’m going to go with ‘accident’ and hope I can leave it there, because seeing the outpour of support from the communities shows that people really are good. There may be a few bad apples, but the community is so supportive and that really does mean a lot.”

He said he hopes to have the damage repaired in short order.

“There’s a few questions in the air still, but they’re all back in a place where we can set them up and use them again in the next gathering or festival,” he said. “We’re going to have to rebuild the actual facade. The boards are cracked and they’re damaged but, I think, they’ll be useable again. We can, of course, make them look good with a little bit of paint, but there’s a structure wall that the facade is actually mounted to that will have to be replaced.”

Wenstob had worked with First Nation youth to create four, eight-metre-wide, Cedar longhouse fronts as part of an Esquimalt First Nation village site display at Victoria’s Parliament building on Sept. 16, 2017, in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the One Wave Festival.

He had set up two of those longhouse fronts at Seaplane Base Field to be part of Saturday night’s Indigenous Culture Crawl event, hosted in conjunction with the Pacific Rim Summer Festival.

“What we did with these houses is we put them up on the Legislature lawn in Victoria. We see a lot of protests happening in that space. It’s a space where governments and communities, kind of, come together. But, this wasn’t a protest. It was, instead, to bring people together and say, ‘Let’s have a conversation. Let’s come together for once, instead of being opposed to each other as we are a lot of the time,’” Wenstob said during Saturday’s Culture Crawl event. “That’s why they’re here today. To invite you into our houses and have a conversation and come together.”

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