Historic Kingcome Village Recovers from Flooding

Posted by Daniel on Dec 18, 2010

Perhaps the first time I heard of Kingcome Village was 20 years ago when I was helping the late Jim Spilsbury sort through his photographs of a life spent cruising the coast. The photos showed the village as it was in 1956 when Jim made his first visit, just after he sold his Queen Charlotte Airlines and returned full-time to the radio business.

I've done a bit of coastal cruising myself since then but never managed to make it to Kingcome. The closest was a sailing trip around Broughton Island a few years ago. We passed the mouth of Kingcome Inlet but there just wasn't time to explore it.

Naturally my attention was aroused this past fall by news stories that the village suffered catastrophic flooding in September and most of the First Nations residents had to be airlifted out to Alert Bay. People were only able to return in mid-November and there was a lot of damage.

Kingcome is a small community on the mainland opposite the north end of Vancouver Island. It has been home to the Tsawataineuk First Nation, a branch of the Kwakwaka'wakw people, for a very long time. Local knowledge says that the first ancestor was a wolf which took refuge on a nearby mountaintop during a flood, then stayed behind when the water receded.

Despite its antiquity, most British Columbians know little about the community, evidenced by the fact that some news reports about the flooding got the location wrong, putting it on Vancouver Island instead of the mainland. Admittedly, the village is remote, lying on the Kingcome River just upstream from where it flows into the head of the inlet of the same name.

But for such a small place it has a rich history. According to Robert Galois's monumental survey, Kwakwaka'wakw Settlements (UBC Press), the community's original name was Gwa'Yi, or Kwae. It was a major gathering spot for different Kwakwaka'wakw nations engaging in the spring eulachon fishery. Indeed, the name Tsawataineuk has been translated as "people of the eulachon place".

Actually in the 1960s the community became one of the most famous places on the coast when writer Margaret Craven made it the setting for her best-selling novel I Heard the Owl Call My Name. The novel tells the story of a young missionary's encounter with First Nations culture; subsequently Daryl Duke adapted it as a CBC television show.

White settlement began in the inlet in 1895 when the Halliday brothers, Ernest and William, took up land near the mouth of the river and started BC's most isolated cattle ranch. The Halliday ranch became a coastal landmark, helped along by the notoriety of William Halliday who became an Indian agent and played a prominent role in government attempts to suppress the potlatch.

In 2001 Judith Williams wrote a marvellous book about the Kingcome area, the Hallidays, the village and the local rock art. It is titled Two Wolves at the Dawn of Time: Kingcome Inlet Pictographs 1893-1998 (New Star).