Relearning History: A Tour to Kiixin


The sky is overcast but the rain is holding off as we gather at the Kiixin Tour Office on the East Government Dock in Bamfield. There are 10 of my family members present, spanning three generations, all eager to follow a Traditional Knowledge Holder through lush rainforest to an ancient village site on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Stella Peters introduces herself as our guide for the morning, and it’s clear at once that we’re in good hands. There’s a final washroom run once we’ve signed our paperwork, and then we pile into our cars and following Stella’s truck a short distance back down the Bamfield Highway and onto a private gravel road.

With two giant carved figures to welcome us, the trailhead is impossible to miss. The figures are Nutchkoa and Ho-miniki, we later learn, the first ancestors of the Huu-ay-aht, one of the Nuu-chah-nulth peoples. As impressive as they are, the two figures are significantly smaller than the original carvings first erected in the village of Kiixin over 160 years ago. Taken from Kiixin in 1911, the original figures now stand watch in the lobby of the Royal BC Museum. New, full-size figures were carved and installed at the entrance to the House of Huu-ay-aht at Pachena Bay in 2000.

As we join the other tour participants in the shelter at the trailhead, Stella shares this and more. “Journey with our ancestors” is one of the taglines of the tour—and with Stella’s guidance that is exactly what we do. Her words and visual materials take us from the distant past to the present. We learn about the ancient site itself, a 19th century village and fortress that shows evidence of continuous occupation for at least 3,000 years—and as much as 5,000 years, according to oral tradition. We learn about the archeological surveys that Stella participated in—and her Nation’s decision not to proceed with a full-scale excavation. We learn about the traditional skills and practices that allowed the Huu-ay-aht to live in this area for millennia. Best of all, we receive this information from a Traditional Knowledge Holder rather than an “outside,” non-indigenous source.

As we move through time, Stella’s words inevitably lead to more painful territory—the decimation of the Huu-ay-aht population as the result of European diseases, the loss of cultural treasures to 19th and 20th century collectors, and the tragic consequences of the residential school system. These are difficult but necessary subjects, and Stella discusses them in a manner that is both matter-of-fact and sensitive to the presence of children on the tour.

With our guide’s introduction complete, we start down the rainforest trail towards the village site. The trail is not particularly long (at least not for our family of hikers), but we take our time, moving carefully down flights of stairs and over long sections of boardwalk. There are frequent stops as well, as Stella points out things of interest. I’m fascinated by the culturally modified trees—ancient cedars with strips of bark removed for clothing and basket-making, and other trees with entire planks missing for cradles, boxes and houses.

Finally, we reach our destination. I’ve had the privilege of visiting many west coast beaches and coves, but this one is particularly breathtaking. It’s a strategic location as well as a picturesque one, set for defensive reasons “between the rugged outer coast and the protected inner waters of Barkley Sound.” Today there’s a bear waiting to greet us as we reach the sand. We keep a respectful distance, and the bear eventually wanders off—into the very section of the forest where Stella was planning to lead us. While we wait for the bear to wander a little further, we take out our packed lunches and have a quick picnic.

Kiixin was the traditional capital village of the Huu-ay-aht, and it remains a sacred site. According to Parks Canada, “it is the only known First Nations village of more than 100 villages on the southern B.C. coast that still features significant, standing traditional architecture.” To see the remains of these structures in person, and to hear dramatic stories from a descendant of the resourceful and courageous people who lived on the site for millennia, is an unforgettable experience.

As a child growing up in Nanaimo, I had very little knowledge of the complex indigenous cultures that existed on Vancouver Island before the first newcomers disembarked from their ships. The curriculum didn’t cover much local history back then, and what I did learn mostly began with the arrival of European explorers in the 1700’s.

Things are different for my grandchildren—and for that I am profoundly grateful. I am especially grateful to Stella Peters and other Traditional Knowledge Holders across the Island who are sharing their stories and cultural teachings so generously. We can’t change the past, but we can certainly be intentional about how we go forward—and learning what we didn’t know before is an essential part of that process.

Kiixin Tours are offered from the May long weekend to Labour Day. While the 4-hour morning tour worked best for our extended family, there is also an evening tour, which includes songs and drumming on the beach. Headlamps or flashlights and a towel or blanket to sit on are required on the evening tour. The hike into Kiixin is rated “moderate plus,” thanks to uneven terrain, potentially slippery boardwalks and a steep flight of stairs down to the beach. According to the tour website, people with injuries, mobility challenges or hiking-restricted medical conditions cannot be accommodated.

Children aged seven and older are welcome on the tour, as long as they are accompanied by a parent or guardian aged 19 years or older. For more information, visit

Rachel Dunstan Muller
Rachel Dunstan Muller
Rachel Dunstan Muller is the mother of five, and a children’s author. Her previous articles can be found at