Harbour Quay clock tower will undergo refurbishment next year, incorporating Tseshaht artwork and interpretive displays. (Mike Youds photo)
While accounts differ on the nature of the confrontation over what would eventually become Port Alberni, the outcome was brutally clear for the Tseshaht: Not just intrusion but outright displacement and dispossession.
By the summer of 1860, English merchant and ship’s master Edward Stamp laid claim to 2,000 acres at the head of Alberni Inlet while the Tseshaht were dispossessed of Tlukwatquwis, a prominent winter village of spiritual, ceremonial and economic importance. Muskets and blankets were their only compensation.
The wolf ritual or Tlookwaana — principal ceremony of the Island’s west coast peoples — disappeared from the beach that was named for it. The shoreline itself disappeared from view, covered over by the dock of Alberni Mills, B.C.’s first sawmill. Harbour Quay occupies the same location today.
Now, after an absence of more than 150 years, the Tseshaht will be returning to Wolf Ritual Beach. As a gesture of reconciliation, the City of Port Alberni has invited Tseshaht First Nation (TFN) to contribute artwork and interpretive displays, part of a refurbishment of Harbour Quay’s 35-year-old clock tower.
“With this project, the Tseshaht First Nation and the city of Port Alberni will continue to move forward together in the spirit of reconciliation, building a partnership that fosters true collaboration,” said Cynthia Dick, Tseshaht chief councillor, in an August news release announcing the joint effort.
Port Alberni Mayor Mike Ruttan described the project as “groundbreaking.”
“It is the first such partnership between the city and Tseshaht First Nation and is a reflection of recent reconciliation efforts and residents’ desires to create an inclusive community that celebrates diversity and local history,” Ruttan said.
Refurbishing the landmark involves a combination of structural engineering work, repair or replacement of the clock and the addition of Indigenous influence in artistic form. The idea is to represent the historic winter village that was long occupied by the Tseshaht with sculpted images mounted and possibly illuminated on the clock face.
These won’t be any ordinary depictions but rather a representation of the wolf, holder of the Tseshaht Law of Harmony. A Tseshaht artist is working on the project.
“It’s going to be the transformation of man and woman becoming a wolf, the bigger the better, 15-foot metal-cut Tseshaht art,” said Darrell Ross Sr., TFN research and planning associate. “We want it to be visible coming down Argyle but also from Tyee Landing and from the ocean … If it all works out, it’s going to be a very positive cultural addition.”
Ross stressed the geographical and historical significance of the location, explaining that Tlukwatquwis was once part of a string of Tseshaht villages extending along the head of the inlet from Kitsuksis Creek south to Polly’s Point. The location took advantage of readily available food sources, a harvest that enabled the Tseshaht to enjoy a relative degree of wealth, Ross said.
Stamp was able to purchase the land in Victoria before travelling to Alberni Inlet, yet the sale by Vancouver Island’s colonial government violated existing law.
“Before they settled, one of the early laws of colonization was that they couldn’t develop on a village site,” Ross said. “So, what did they do? They developed on a village site and kicked us off.”
Stamp’s mill would operate for only a few years. The Tseshaht returned for a while and were forcibly removed a second time. Surrounding lands eventually became Lot 1 of colonial settlement in the Alberni Valley, marking the original city boundary.
“It’s a very strong Tseshaht history in connection to those areas,” a claim hopefully to be resolved within the specific claims process, Ross added.
Port Alberni city council earmarked $100,000 in its 2017 financial plan for the clock tower project.
The city aims to have the project completed in May 2019. That’s when the first cruise ship to visit in six years, one of several scheduled to arrive next summer, docks in Port Alberni.
Editors's note: This version has been modified from the original online story, due to a misunderstanding over the historicial occupation of the village site. The Ha-Shilth-Sa apologizes for any confusion that might have been caused.