Located on Quadra Island across Discovery Passage from Campbell River is the village of Yaculta near Cape Mudge, home to the Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre, housing an excellent collection of original potlatch regalia. Nuyumbalees is considered the sister museum of the better known U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay near Port McNeil. Nuyumbalees is equally impressive with numerous masks, totems, house posts, historical photos, several coppers, and dance regalia, along with a wealth of information regarding Native culture.

Chief Billy Assu. Most of the collection at Nuyumbalees is that of Chief Billy Assu (1867-1965) along with contributions from local tribes and families. Billy Assu was born at Cape Mudge and belonged to the Eagle Clan (maternal) and the Wolf Clan (paternal). He demonstrated leadership skills at a young age and was an accomplished speaker. When his cousin Nagahu died at a very young age, Chief Wamaish hosted a big potlatch telling all those who were present that Billy was chosen as legal heir to the chief’s position. When Chief Wamaish died in 1891, Billy Assu became chief at the age of 24 years. Chief Assu was known for the many potlatches he gave – several hundred small ones and two exceptionally large ones, including one with 3,000 guests lasting over three weeks. While passing on Native traditions, Chief Assu was able to help his people live in the European industrialized society. He bartered for better wages for his people at the local canneries, and helped his people form a company of workers to log their own rich stands of timber. In 1937, Chief Assu was honored with a coronation medal by King George VI, and decorated by Queen Elizabeth in 1953.

The Potlatch. Misunderstood by the Europeans, potlatching was made illegal in 1885, and the prohibition was not lifted until 1951. Those who participated in potlatches were jailed and masks were either confiscated or burned. By 1922 Chief Assu had been called before the court in Alert Bay three times for participating in potlatches during the Anti-Potlatch ban. Confiscated potlatch regalia was taken or purchased by collectors and museums in Canada, England, and the United States.

Potlatches were an important aspect of Native culture, intended as celebrations to pass on family rights, privileges, and inheritances, including rights to property. These feasts of celebration included distribution of tangible objects such as blankets, coppers, and masks. Rights were also given to specific dances, songs, and stories. Feasts were held for other occasions such as births, deaths, adoptions, and weddings. Those who attended a potlatch and accepted gifts, served as witnesses and acceptance of the stated obligations.

Photo of masks and potlatch regalia from Royal British Columbia Museum

After years of effort beginning in the 1950s by First Nations, many of the confiscated potlatch treasurers were successfully repatriated. In the 1960’s, the Board of Trustees of the National Museums of Canada Corporation agreed to return part of the Potlatch Collection held by the National Museum of Man. The return was conditional on the construction of a museum to properly house and care for the collection. The question of the location of the building was resolved by having museums built at both Cape Mudge (Yaculta) and Alert Bay.

Visiting Nuyumbalees. The Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre in Yaculta is located at 34 Weway Road (Cape Mudge) and is open June 15 – September 15 from 10 am to 3 pm, Thursday-Sunday. The Cultural Centre museum is within easy walking distance of the Yaculta Public Dock located across Discovery Passage from Campbell River on Quadra Island; arrive by dinghy or with the mothership and tie up at the 220-foot public dock. The dock is exposed to wakes and space is often filled with local boats so arriving by dinghy may be best; be sure to check the weather before making your crossing. Another option is to ride the ferry from Campbell River to Quathiaski Cove from which you can take Al Your Pal Taxi (250-204-0709) to the Cultural Centre. If you are staying on your boat at April Point Marina, it’s a short dinghy ride to the Public Wharf in Quathiaski Cove. We recommend calling the museum ahead of time to confirm hours of operation (250-914-8762). A visit to Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre is well worth the effort. Please note that photos are not allowed inside the museum.

Potlach Collection Photo: Royal British Columbia Museum