By Keisha Everson
If you ask any local about must see things in the Comox Valley, there’s a strong chance they’ll mention places like 5th Street, Paradise Meadows, Goose Spit, the Atlas Café and, of course, Kumugwe, the K’omoks Bighouse. Even if they don’t mention it, the 60 x 60 traditional wood bighouse with it’s whale and thunderbird design is difficult to miss. However, what few visitors or even Comox Valley locals know is that the bighouse did not begin on the scenic K’omoks First Nations waterfront between Courtenay and Comox. To tell Kumugwe’s story, we need to go back to a time when racism and prejudice were not just socially acceptable, but built into the fabric of Canadian law.
As of 1880 under the Indian Act – a document that outlines all laws regarding Aboriginal Peoples in Canada – Aboriginal Peoples in Canada were forbidden to participate in traditional ceremonies. The Potlatch Law made ceremonies like the potlatch, powwow and sundance illegal and punishable with jail time and seizure of masks, blankets, and sacred ceremonial regalia, which were distributed around the world to collectors and museums.
This law had a profound effect on Aboriginal Peoples. On the west coast, potlatching communities that include the Kwakwaka’wakw were unable to gather to name children, celebrate marriages, remember those who have gone and pass on rights and names for 67 years. Potlatches are so much more than spiritual; they are the political, social, and economic record keepers of the people. The potlatch was outlawed until 1951 when the Indian Act was amended. The fact that the potlatch has survived and thrived after 67 years of being outlawed is a testament to the strength and perseverance of families who potlatched in secret and worked to bring culture back after the ban was lifted. In 1952, Chief Mungo Martin built a bighouse and hosted a potlatch in Victoria, BC.
The Comox Valley saw a revitalization of culture when K’omoks First Nation Chief Andy Frank decided to build a bighouse to fulfill the expectations of his wife’s dowry. Because of the stigma around being First Nations in the 1950s, the bighouse was actually built away from K’omoks First Nation lands where it “wasn’t so visible”. The first home of the Kumugwe Bighouse was actually in the rotary bowl in Centennial Park where MusicFest is hosted annually today; The land was donated by the Courtenay Historical Society. Chief Andy Frank was a co-founder of the society. The main carver of the 4 house posts in the bighouse was David Martin, the son of famous carver Chief Mungo Martin. Unfortunately, David Martin passed away in an accident before the house posts and the bighouse were completed. For years after it’s completion, the incomplete pole front was fixed to the house post to remember him. The Kumugwe bighouse was finished in 1959 and opened with a traditional potlatch hosted by Chief Andy Frank.
Few people alive today can understand Chief Andy Frank’s monumental undertaking. In a time when Status Indians were still being denied the right to vote, he worked with various organizations in the Comox Valley including community members Mrs. Woodward and Mrs. Rogers as well as the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force), to build a traditional Kwagut style bighouse using the same building plans that Mungo Martin had used to build the bighouse in Victoria in 1952. The only major difference? The Kumugwe Bighouse was 4 feet larger in each direction.
Years passed and in 1972, Chief Andy Frank, at the age of 66, left on a fishing trip to raise funds to move the K’omoks Bighouse onto K’omoks territory. While refueling in Prince Rupert, Chief Andy Frank passed away in an accident. The Comox Valley community rallied around the K’omoks First Nation. With the support of a grant secured by the K’omoks First Nation, and the RCAF, Chief Norman Frank, nephew to the late chief, worked to make it happen. Pat Joseph was the lead of the re-assembly process. In 1974, the Kumugwe bighouse was finally re-assembled on the land Chief Andy Frank had carefully marked out where the garden once was behind his home on Comox Road. The Kumugwe Bighouse is still there today.
As any homeowner will tell you, buildings need to be renovated and maintained or they fall into disrepair. The same is true of traditional wood frame bighouses. In the late 1980s, the K’omoks First Nation decided to renovate and refurbish the bighouse. This included adding 8 feet to the width of the bighouse to increase seating, a new cedar shingle roof, and a memorial pole to remember Chief Andy Frank. The Killer whale on the bottom is the crest of Chief Andy Frank’s family, and the chief standing on top with his hand outstretched in offering and welcome is a representation of the chief himself.
Years passed and the Kumugwe Bighouse once again fell into disrepair. The increasingly dry summers – combined with the traditional cedar shingle roof – meant that groups could no longer have fires in the bighouse for fear of the building being set ablaze. In the early 2000s, members of the K’omoks First Nation established the Kumugwe Cultural Society. The mandate of the society is two-fold – to preserve and revitalize Kwakwaka’wakw culture, and to maintain and repair the Kumugwe Bighouse from which the society takes its name. The Kumugwe Cultural Society hosted fundraisers and reached out to the Comox Valley community; The support was extraordinary. The roof was removed – as were many rotting crossbeams – one of the beams was lifted and a leaning house post was straightened. The roof was replaced with tin and the interior roof was painted with fire-retardant paint to ensure that the K’omoks community could host events and have fires safely. Chief Andy Frank’s descendants volunteered countless hours throughout the summer of 2010 to renovate the bighouse, repaint the Thunderbird and Whale on the front, and ensure that it would stand for generations.
Since the Potlatch Ban was lifted in 1951 – almost 67 years ago – it is amazing to think of the signifcant changes that have occurred for First Nations people. We have gone from traditional ceremonies being illegal to whole communities – Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal – banding together to help bring visions like the Kumugwe Bighouse to life. However, this account hardly touches on the trials and tribulations of the people who fought so tirelessly to have their rights recognized. As Mary Everson, Chief Andy Frank’s daughter said, “Non native people know how to build a museum to hold artifacts things we don’t use anymore. We built a bighouse to hold our treasures and show how we lived.”