Ucluelet First Nation (UFN) has a new cultural and healing space in the community of Hitacu, located on the east shore of the Ucluelet Inlet.
After an inaugural walk-through and song celebration on Friday, Elder Marjorie Touchie said the building brought back childhood memories of being in a traditional Big House.
“You could describe it to children, but they didn’t really get what we were talking about. You’d show them pictures and it doesn’t do the same thing. To have the whole feeling of being in that room… The sense of feeling that I had, like the safety and the teaching… The complete love and respect that we got in those rooms from the elders,” said Touchie.
UFN’s department of Culture and Heritage was one of 10 successful nations out of 140 applicants to receive a federal infrastructure grant of $400,000 through First People’s Cultural Council to build the modernized ‘Mini Big House’. Carey Cunneyworth, director of Culture and Heritage, says the official name for the structure is pending and a more fitting one will be picked soon.
“This is very much a community project. It was mostly built by Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ members. Thank you to all the community members that came by during the building phase and talked to the crew and offered positivity and encouragement. I know that really made this a good project for everybody working on it,” said Cunneyworth during the soft opening. He went on to note via email that the last Big Houses in Hitacu were in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s and built with traditional posts and poles.
Nuu-chah-nulth artist and owner of Yaakmis Creation Jackelyn Williams is the artist behind the striking front house design.
“On the front you’ll see a Thunderbird on a whale hunt and there is also the Wolf. The Thunderbird is really powerful and kind of symbolizes to be our culture succeeding on whale hunt. The Whale is our wellness and prosperity. The Wolf is the connection to land. The Wolf is really important in Nuu-chah-nulth because they are really family and community oriented,” said Williams, who was born and raised in Hitacu and currently works as a program co-ordinator for the Kackaamin Family Development Centre in Port Alberni.
“This is something we’ve needed for so long. I don’t want to say that it’s igniting hope because hope has always been there, but the history that our elders talked about when I was growing up is still relevant and it’s validating to know that we can still continue this way, you know, adapting as life goes on. It’s in your blood. You can feel that connectedness when you go into these sacred spaces,” she said.
Founder of Spirits Works Shain Jackson, a member of the Sechelt First Nation, was hired to design the ‘Mini Big House’. During the soft opening he said he carries the name ‘Niniwum’, which means ‘to help and to serve’.
This is the first cedar clad, modernized Big House he has worked on and he is hoping there will be more.
“I’m very proud to be invited into the community to help out and bring this structure together. It means a lot to me,” said Jackson. He went on to acknowledge the youth that worked on the project by gifting them hand carved golden eagle feathers. To UFN president Charles McCarthy, Jackson presented a hand carved raven feather.
“I know it is the Tyees (Hereditary Chiefs) wish over the years to have a real big house. We will eventually some day have, but this is the beginning and the first footsteps to where we are going,” said McCarthy right before cutting a cedar rope braided by Elder Rose Wilson to open the new community space.
The ‘Mini Big House’ also features two offices at the back for UFN culture, heritage and language staff. Some of the artifacts returned to UFN from the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa and the Royal BC Museum in Victoria will eventually be placed in the ‘Mini Big House’, notes Cunneyworth, but for now, they rest in the adjoining cultural library.
The Westerly was not permitted to photograph any of the artifacts. To learn more about these significant cultural objects, visit ufn.ca or check out the nation’s fall and winter publication of the ‘Umacuk’.