17 July 2008

Yuquot, British Columbia

syncretic signsThe two house posts within the former sanctuary, with the communion rail separating the nave from the sanctuary. On the left near the door is the altar and tabernacle, moved from their former central position. Inward-facing seats (the pews) are typical of potlatch houses of the 1920s.

Michael Leeb

Yuquot is a village on the southernmost part of Nootka Island, British Columbia. Its church sits on a windswept hill on a narrow ribbon of land between the open Pacific Ocean to the west and Friendly Cove to the east. There is a grove of trees to the south and a footpath through chest-high blackberry vines flickering with hummingbirds.

The church is neo-Gothic with arched windows along the length of the building, a central tower and a spire which also served as a bell tower. In a niche of this central tower stands a statue of the Sacred Heart. The church is clad in whitewashed wooden planks with concrete buttresses supporting the frame. The present building, built in 1956, replaced the original church, designed and built by Fr. Brabant in 1889, destroyed by fire in 1954. The 1956 building appears to have been built on the foundation of the original church. In 1995 the building was redefined and is now used as a cultural centre and museum for the Mowachaht-Muchalaht First Nation. This is only apparent inside, since all exterior qualities of this building only convey the sense of a neo-Gothic wood church.

When you go in, the first thing you see is a display of site maps and architectural renderings for a proposed Na’amis Interpretive Centre (in the works since 2000) for the village of Yuquot given that it has been named a National Historic Site. The entry also has a stained glass depiction of Yuquot, donated by the Spanish government in 1957. From the front door one can see the old nave of the church but the culturally redefined interior is only apparent once fully inside.
In 1995 two totem house posts were placed at the doorway between the entry and nave, and two other posts stand within the former sanctuary at the opposite end of the building. These house posts are carved replicas of former house posts dating from the 1920s when they were used as totem poles for potlatch houses. These totem poles are freestanding and not part of the structure. Nevertheless, this dramatic alteration of the interior has culturally redefined the original intent of the building and represents a cultural form of reclamation and cultural assertion.

Other modifications include the reorientation of the pews on either side of the nave so that the pews now face each other rather than towards an altar. Although a communion rail still separates the nave from the sanctuary, the altar and tabernacle are somewhat haphazardly placed to the left side of the former sanctuary from their original central placement, enhancing the significance and centrality of the two house posts within the former sanctuary.

Within the bell tower located in the former choir loft are a large crucifix and a number of statues arranged in a semi-circle. The sense is of a grotto with beautiful ambient light, and resembles very much the placement of carved human-like figures that once were found within the Whaler’s shrine that was removed from its location near the village of Yuquot to the American Museum of Natural History in 1905. The similarity in some respects of these two shrine-like spaces (the bell tower and the Whaler’s shrine) I would argue are not coincidental but rather the grotto-type space within the bell tower is indicative of a form of cultural reassertion and architectural syncretism within the former church. Both First Nation traditional indigenous art and architecture coexists with traditional Catholic iconography within this structure. Although the cultural centre now resembles a 1920s potlatch house, vestiges of the religious architecture of Catholicism still remain — the ambient lighting from the series of windows along the sides of the building are also typical of early potlatch houses.

The result is a unique and complex architectural syncretism between the cultural history of contact and the power of European religions in the dismantling of aboriginal culture, the aspirational efforts of the Mowachaht-Muchalaht people to repatriate their pre-contact, ancestral Whaler’s shrine to Yuquot, and the Canadian Government’s deferred recognition of Yuquot as a National Historic Site.

Leeb, Michael. 'Syncretic signs'
On Site review, no. 18 Fall/Winter 2007/2008
© Michael Leeb and On Site review

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