The last time the Tlowitsis lived together in a community was in the early 1960s in a small village called Kalugwis on Turnour Island.
At that time the government shut down both the school and the monthly hospital ship. Parents did not want to send their children to the residential school in Alert Bay and so the community dispersed.
The Tlowitsis are a part of the Kwakwaka’wakw speaking group and are one of the original tribes in the area.
“People used to come to our territory for protection during times of war or battles,” said John Smith, Tlowitsis Chief.
Like many First Nations people, historically, the Tlowitsis were nomadic. Careful not to overstrain their resources, they never hunted, fished or gathered in one place for long. One such destination was Knight Inlet where the tribes in the area would gather to make eulachan grease – oil made from the eulachan fish. The grease was used a staple food. Not only did they dip dry fish into the grease, it was thought of as medicine. Smith said that those who had eulachan grease survived the flu epidemic
It wasn’t until the non-natives came to the area that the Tlowitsis started staying year round in their winter village on Turnour Island.
At the moment, the approximately 400 members live not only across Vancouver Island but across the world. Their language is slowly dying and many of the traditional skills, such as curing fish and cooking traditional meals, have been all but lost. Many of the next generation of Tlowitsis did not get the chance to grow up with and learn from the elders in their community.
“Things have fallen off dramatically but we’re still fairly self motivated,” said Smith. “We are ambitious folk. We have an oyster farm. We partner with fish farms.”
Right now the nation is going through the Additions to Reserve process and have purchased five plots of land on York Road, from TimberWest through its Couverdon subsidiary.
Though the Tlowitsis have 460 acres of reserve land already, it is in 11 different places and none are reasonable locations to build a community. One is basically a rock in the ocean, and the federal government owns up to the highest waterline, Smith explained.
He wants their new community to have all of the facilities that everyone else relies on, such as sewer, water and access to emergency services.
It was a three-hour trip by boat to the nearest hospital, from their previous village. Access to a grocery store, though closer, was difficult during the winter.
“Now our kids should have the ability to take part in all the things that kids do,” Smith said.
Since inheriting the chieftainship in 1982, Smith has been looking for a place for the Tlowitsis to call home. Though tired at times, his family and tribe members have kept him motivated.
“This is the people’s decision,” he said.
Despite being scattered across the region, the community continues to come together to practice their cultural tradition of the potlach.
People come from far and wide for the grand event. At the potlach political discussions are had, marriage and naming ceremonies are performed and dancers and singers entertain the crowd.
Recently the events have taken place in the Kwanwatsi Big House on Dogwood Street.
Historically, there were many potlaches and they went on for days. Now they try to fit in as much as possible into one or two evenings because people are travelling from so far away.
At one point in their long history as a nation, the Tlowitsis were banned from having potlaches, a prohibition that was applied to all First Nations on the West Coast. Smith said his grandfather was jailed for three months in 1921 for practicing the potlach.
“We survived all that,” he said.
Now the tribe wants to reconnect their people with their history and their culture.
Education is a primary focus. Language classes, as well as traditional dancing and singing classes, are one of the many things the band hopes to offer the children when their new community is formed.
Traditionally only the men sang, but Smith said the nation is willing to change with the times and equal opportunity will be provided for women as well.
“We’re open to a lot of stuff now,” Smith said. “If they want to be that, a hunter or a soldier, that’s the way things are now.”
Emily Aitken and her grandson Cohen right before his naming ceremony in November of 2015. He was given the name Gwixsisalasamay, which was Emily’s grandfather’s name. Concern that the next generations will lose the Tlowitsis language and culture is behind the pursuit of a new reserve.