The Ghosts of Village Island

A visitor discovers that British Columbia’s Village Island isn’t as abandoned as it looks.

Published May 13, 2015

Shore Lines is a place for readers to recount an experience of personal significance that helped them connect with one small stretch of the world’s vast and varied coast.

Mamalilikulla, on Village Island off northern Vancouver Island, British Columbia, echoes history with the crunch of every step I take over its glistening shell and rock shoreline. A once-magnificent pole lies rotting on the ground; at the end, fern and salal sprout from a wolf’s head, its carved eyes looming large. What’s left of a day school and tuberculosis “preventorium” sinks into the soil. Trees frame three pieces of immense weathered logs that once marked the entrance to a longhouse left unfinished.

On a sailing trip through the area, we do what most boaters do when they anchor by this island at the mouth of Knight Inlet: stand framed by that great gray entrance and snap photos of ourselves looking adventurous in canvas hats and quick-dry pants. It never occurs to us to contact the Mamalilikulla-Qwe’Qwa’Sot’Em band office in Campbell River to say we’re dropping by their ancestral home this sunny afternoon, uninvited, and would they mind. Later, I’ll wonder, did anyone else think to do so?

Why not explore, since the village is uninhabited, described as abandoned or deserted in press reports and government documents. The most recent time anyone lived on the island was in the mid-1900s.

Buttercups line the trail through the woods, which is tangled with blackberry, wild rose, vetch, and stinging nettle all vying for space. Sweet honeysuckle lures bees and hummingbirds. Crushed shells, sea glass, and barnacles form the beach, which is dotted with the odd rusted bits of a motor. We meet three fellows enjoying the spectacular scenery on a day off from a nearby fish farm, one whose mother once lived here. His wife hopes he will find rare trading beads nestled in the shoreline midden, a glittering heap of broken shells left behind by generations of seafood diners. He tells us that visitors used to say they sensed the ghost of his grandmother drinking tea in the village among them.

Soon after, it hits me—to the Mamalilikulla-Qwe’Qwa’Sot’Em, Mamalilikulla is not abandoned, they simply do not live here now. And that’s an important difference, especially as their most recent leave-taking occurred as a result of the many-tentacled effects of colonialism. The people who are stewards of this place will surely know when, and if, it is time to take up life again among the ghosts of their ancestors.