Alert Bay has a rich First Nations heritage that can be seen in its proudly preserved architecture and artifacts. It has been a Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwagiulth) village for thousands of years. The integration of Scottish immigrants into the area during the 19th and 20th centuries is clearly depicted in the design of the Anglican Church on Front Street (tel. 250/974-5401). The cedar building was erected in 1881; its stained-glass window designs reflect a fusion of Kwakwaka'wakw and Scottish motifs. It's open in summer Monday through Saturday from 8am to 5pm.
Walk a mile from the ferry terminal along Front Street to the island's two most interesting attractions: a 53m (174-ft.) totem pole -- the world's highest -- stands next to the Big House, the tribal community center. The cedar totem pole features 22 figures of bears, orcas, and ravens. The Big House is usually closed to the public, but visitors are welcome to enter the grounds to get a closer look at the building, which is covered with traditional painted figures. In July and August, the T'sasala Cultural Group (tel. 250/974-5475; www.tsasala.org) presents dance performances in the Big House, usually at 1pm on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. The cost is C$15 for adults and C$6 for children under 12.
A few yards down the road from the Big House is the U'Mista Cultural Centre, Front Street (tel. 250/974-5403; www.umista.org), which displays carved masks, cedar baskets, copper jewelry, and other potlatch artifacts. The potlatch was traditionally a highly important ceremony for the Kwagiulth: While dancers and singers clad in elaborate masks and robes performed and sang, villagers would engage in ritual gift-giving, exchanging ceremonial objects, totems, shields, and other hand-carved artifacts created especially for the ritual. However, in the 1880s, the Canadian government outlawed the ceremony as part of an effort to "civilize" the Kwagiulth, and, in 1921, its officers confiscated the entirety of the band's potlatch treasures and regalia, which was sent to museums in eastern Canada and sold to private collectors.
By the 1970s and 1980s, pressures from Native groups and changes in government perspectives resulted in the partial repatriation of potlatch ceremonial artifacts to the Kwagiulth, who established the U'Mista Cultural Centre to exhibit this wondrous collection. Admission is C$8 for adults, C$7 for seniors and students, and C$1 for children 12 and under. The museum is open in summer daily from 9am to 5pm, and in winter Monday through Friday from 9am to 5pm.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.