In Bella Coola, aboriginal stories are etched in stone

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      Wake up, rock of ages, you’ve got guests. That was the gist of the welcoming song offered by Nuxalk Nation guide Chris Nelson, on behalf of visitors during a walking tour of an outdoor petroglyph site in the Bella Coola Valley.

      Sequestered in the forest above the pale-green waters of Thorsen Creek, a host of images drawn from the animal and supernatural worlds stare out in silent testimony to the visions of their creators. One of the most arresting figures on display, pecked into the smooth-faced granite, is a frog face with a wide-eyed, goofy grin and an outstretched tongue that would do Gene Simmons proud.

      Given that B.C.’s Central Coast Great Bear Rainforest is one of the wettest places on the planet, the images glistened with moisture that lent vitality to their timeless presence.

      Accompanied by his twin brother, Lance, with whom he teaches Nuxalk culture in local schools, Nelson translated the words of the traditional welcoming song as: “They have arrived down on the waterfront. To the ones I know, I will place eagle down on them.” He explained that anointment with eagle down signifies that guests may travel among the Nuxalk in peace. “The Nuxalk have always been a welcoming people,” he said. “Welcome home.”

      On behalf of their tribal elders, the Nelson brothers act as cultural ambassadors for travellers curious about aboriginal history. On a half-hour walk to the petroglyph site, Chris said, “It’s one thing to know your culture. It’s another thing to live your culture the way my brother and I do.”

      He added that before a series of smallpox and measles epidemics ravaged Nuxalk villagers in the 19th century, the Native population in the Bella Coola region numbered 30,000. Reduced to hundreds, the populace has since rebounded and currently numbers several thousand.

      Rich odours scented the air: moist earth, decomposing vegetal matter, herbaceous ground cover abetted by a host of fungi, all blended together to form a pungent perfume. Sounds of the creek as it coursed through a narrow canyon on its way to join the Bella Coola River impelled one foot in front of the other.

      A natural stone staircase climbed the hillside. With little fanfare, first one petroglyph, then another announced the gallery’s entrance. The Nelsons described a circle containing a human hand as symbolizing the Earth and its people. “The carvings have been placed here to remind us that life is for learning and to keep an open mind,” Chris observed. “For example, the image of a frog suggests moving forward through the changes of its life, from egg to tadpole to adult. At each stage, a frog accepts the transformation before carrying on.”

      The higher up the trail the Nelsons explored, the more images were revealed until the forest was populated with constellations of carvings, a reminder of the numerous artists who have spent time there over centuries of creativity. Place an outstretched hand on one to feel a cool, intimate connection to an ancient past.

      “Our elders believe that we Nuxalk share parallel belief systems as expressed in the Bible as well as African animistic religions,” Chris explained as he folded back a layer of forest duff to reveal the image of a turtle. “Turtle Island—the idea that North America grew on the back of a tortoise—is a concept commonly shared among indigenous groups. My brother and I act as heralds for our people and invite everyone to witness these stories on stone.”

      With that, he again picked up his drum and raised his voice to the sky as he sang the melodic Cedar Bark Dance song. “The words encourage us to look back to the beginning of time—when the world was copper-coloured, before sunshine flooded the Earth—to see the changes that have occurred within ourselves. Raven brought light to the world, as represented by this stone image that looks at the adjacent carvings with one eye closed and the other open.”

      In the warm-weather months ahead, consider exploring the aboriginal sites dotted throughout B.C.’s corner of Turtle Island.

      Access: Bella Coola is located 450 kilometres west of Williams Lake on Highway 20. It is also accessible by air and ferry (limited service). For information on Nuxalk petroglyph tours, see the Bella Coola website. The writer travelled with the assistance of Destination B.C.