Totems in downtown Duncan

Totems in downtown Duncan

Ancient cultures come alive for visitors

Learn about Vancouver Island's rich Aboriginal heritage

  • May. 9, 2013 6:00 p.m.

Whether you are visiting Vancouver Island for a few days or a few weeks, there are plenty of opportunities to explore the fascinating culture of the First Nations who have made their home here for thousands of years.

Rich in tradition, Aboriginal history comes alive at the Royal BC Museum, on Victoria’s Inner Harbour – don’t miss the totems in Thunderbird Park next door – and the Big House experience inside the museum.

Around the harbour, find the Signs of Lekwungen. Carved by Songhees artist Butch Dick, the Signs mark seven places of cultural significance to the Lekwungen, known today as the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations, and the opportunity to learn more about these remarkable people. To trace the Signs, pick up a map at the downtown Visitor Centre, at city hall or visit

In Duncan, known as the City of Totems, explore the town’s historic streets. The region is home to more than 80 totems, including 40 in the downtown centre where walking tours are offered each summer. Also in Duncan, the Quw’utsun’ Cultural and Conference Centre offers interpretive tours, demonstrations and authentic native cuisine.

Continuing north, Nanaimo’s Petroglyph Park features ancient carvings in stone while at the Nanaimo Museum the interactive Snunéymuxw exhibit explores textiles, basketry, trade items, fishing tools and more. Children can try on a “discovery backpack” and explore this culture through exercises and puzzles while the petroglyph workstation allows visitors to create etchings of local petroglyphs.

Heading west from Parksville, past Port Alberni, Tofino offers a coastal adventure blending whale, marine and wildlife watching tours with First Nations history and culture, along with a variety of art galleries and studios.

The North Island offers a variety of First Nations cultural experiences.

In Courtenay, check out the Big House and I-Hos Native Gallery and don’t miss the First Nations exhibits in the Courtenay and District Museum, while the Museum at Campbell River boasts an extensive First Nations gallery, including the outstanding theatre presentation Treasures of Siwidi, in which masks depict the adventures of the Kwakwaka’wakw ancestor, Siwidi, who journeyed to the Undersea World and encountered a host of supernatural creatures.

A short ferry trip from Port McNeill, discover the small community of Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, home to the world-famous U’mista Cultural Centre, featuring the Potlach Collection, an amazing display of masks and ceremonial regalia. In July and August enjoy dance performances by T’sasała Cultural Group, a Big House, totem poles throughout the community, and for art lovers, amenities such as the Culture Shock Gallery, a 100-per-cent aboriginal-owned and operated  gallery.

Continuing north, the Copper Maker Gallery in Fort Rupert Village is a short distance from Port Hardy. In the heart of Kwagu’l territory on the site of an ancient village, it’s now a working artists’ gallery.

For more ideas about some of the many opportunities to explore and experience Vancouver Island’s Aboriginal culture, visit www.