BAMFIELD, BC — Surrounded by old-growth rainforest against the rocky shoreline on the southwest edge of Vancouver Island lies a centuries-old Indigenous village where traditional longhouses accessible only by foot remain undisturbed.
The Huu-ay-aht First Nation began offering tours of the ancient capital Kiixin — pronounced kee-hin — last year in an effort to share their cultural heritage with the world and revitalize the quiet coastal town of Bamfield.
Trevor Cootes, a member of the Huu-ay-aht’s executive council, says opening up the rare archeological site to the world has been years in the making.
“For guests coming into our territory … they’re almost witnessing what we’re doing in regards to truth and reconciliation. Truth and reconciliation has to do more with ourselves and how we put our own culture back into our day-to-day lives.”
The Huu-ay-aht is among several Vancouver Island First Nations to sign a treaty in 2011 and is self-governing.
The ancient site near Bamfield is located between the popular tourist destinations of Ucluelet and the West Coast Trail, and is accessible by either logging road, plane or ferry from Port Alberni.
The Canadian government declared the village and fortress, which dates back to the 19th century, a National Historic Site in 1999.
The roughly three-hour tour offers more than a history lesson about the site. Guides tell stories reflecting the beliefs and traditions of the Huu-ay-aht people, including a tale of how their warriors reclaimed the land from a neighbouring nation and spiritual beliefs rooted in the land, water and stars.
“In our culture when you come to our territory and we share something to you, a part of that responsibility is that you now are a witness to who we are as Huu-ay-aht people,” Cootes says. “Instead of just paying for a tour, you’re being part of something and there is almost this life-long connection to Huu-ay-aht.”
Visitors also learn about significant plant life in the area used for cultural and medicinal purposes.
“The idea is that we paint a picture of what is in the land,” Cootes says.
Visitors can add on a traditional food component to the Kiixin tour and also take trips hiking in the forests, kayaking, or boating from Bamfield.
Accommodations in and around Bamfield range from camping to waterfront lodges, many of which are owned by the First Nation, Cootes says.
While the Kiixin tour is one of a kind, the number of Indigenous cultural activities across B.C. has grown significantly with more than 400 new tourism businesses taking off between 2012 and 2017.
Tracy Eyssens, chief executive officer with Indigenous Tourism BC, says they are tapping into Canadian and international interests in their heritage to both boost local economies and set the record straight about their culture.
“No, we don’t live in igloos, no we don’t live in teepees,” she says. “We are changing those cliches, or those myths, or the perceptions that consumers have about Indigenous people in B.C.”
Recent federal funding to Indigenous Tourism BC is intended to help expand the industry by giving more communities like the Huu-ay-aht support to develop and expand attractions in the coming years, Eyssens says.
The Kiixin tour is available May through September. Cootes says bookings will be accepted by phone or email and details can be found on the Huu-ay-aht First Nation website.