Quatsino is a small community located on Quatsino Sound on the northwestern coast of Vancouver Island, about 14 miles (23 km) south-southwest of Port Hardy and 10 miles (16 km) northwest of Port Alice, British Columbia. Quatsino Sound is a complex of coastal inlets, bays, and islands, and is the northernmost of the five sounds on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The geology of northern Vancouver Island consists of the Wrangellia terrane that accreted to North America in the Cretaceous period about 110-85 million years ago. Rocks of Wrangellia were originally formed near the equator during or before the Jurassic period in the Panthalassic Ocean off the west coast of the Laurentia as volcanic island arcs, and oceanic plateaus. It is composed of many rocks types, of various compositions, ages, and tectonic affinities, but the Late Triassic flood basalts are the defining rock unit of Wrangellia. These basalts were extruded onto land over a period of 5 million years about 230 million years ago, on top of an extinct volcanic island arc. Wrangellia collided and amalgamated with the Alexander terrane and by the end of the Triassic, the Peninsular terrane had also joined the Wrangellia composite terrane. A subduction zone existed on the west side of Wrangellia and seafloor rocks too light to be subducted were compressed against the western edge of the terrane. Over time, plate tectonics moved this amalgamation of crustal rocks generally northeastward and eventually into contact with the North American continental margin. The oldest rocks encountered in the Quatsino Sound area belong to the Late Triassic flood basalts of the Karmutsen Formation overlain by thinly bedded to massive limestone of the Quatsino Formation and marine shale, siltstone, and impure limestone of the Parson Bay Formation. The mountain ranges of western Canada were repeatedly enveloped by the Cordilleran ice sheet during the Late Pliocene and Pleistocene. At its maximum extent, the ice sheet covered almost all of British Columbia, southern Alaska, and it extended south into the northwestern conterminous United States. In western British Columbia, ice streamed down fjords and valleys in the coastal mountains and covered large areas of the Pacific continental shelf, and parts of the shelf were exposed due to the eustatic lowering of sea level. Fjords like Quatsino Sound were scoured and subsequently drowned by rising sea levels. Much of the sediment produced by glacial erosion was transported beyond the periphery of the ice sheet. The Cordilleran ice sheet persisted until about 11,000 years ago, and deglaciation was rapid, triggered both by climate warming and by calving at the western margin of the ice sheet.
The Quatsino First Nation is part of the Gwat’sinux subgroup of the Kwakwaka’wakw people, based in the Quatsino Sound region and primarily in the community of Coal Harbor. The Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw creation story relates how their ancestors came in the forms of animals by way of land, sea, or underground. When one of these ancestral animals arrived at a given spot, it discarded its animal appearance and became human. Prominent animals include the Thunderbird, his brother Kolas, the seagull, orca, and grizzly bear. Some ancestors have human origins and are said to come from distant places. Historically, the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw economy was based primarily on fishing, with the men also engaging in some hunting, and the women gathering wild fruits and berries. Ornate weaving and woodwork were important crafts, and wealth, defined by slaves and material goods, was prominently displayed and traded at potlatch ceremonies. The first documented European contact was with Captain George Vancouver in 1792. Direct contact with European settlers introduced diseases that drastically reduced the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw population during the late 19th-early 20th centuries. The 1862 Pacific Northwest smallpox epidemic alone killed over half of the people. In 1894, a group of Norwegian settlers arrived in Quatsino Sound on the steamboat Mischief to homestead farms of 80 acres (32 ha) offered through Crown Land Grants and founded the community of Quatsino. Soon steamboat service to Victoria was established, along with a post office, a customs office, and a government wharf. In 1897, a chapel was built called Saint Olaf’s Anglican Church and is now considered one of the oldest buildings on Vancouver Island. The village is also known to have one of British Columbia’s only public one-room schoolhouses, a two-story wooden building built in 1935. The village grew as resources were developed and the area boasted numerous mines, canneries, general stores, rental cabins, a hotel, a saloon, a telegraph office, and an Imperial Oil fuel station. The village was a thriving community up until the 1940s. Today the village has only 75 mostly summer residents and is still not accessible by road. Boat access is generally from Coal Harbor or Port Alice.
The Kwakwaka’wakw prehistorically and historically were fishers of ‘hiqua’ or Dentalium in Quatsino Sound and Nootka Sound. Dentalium refers to ‘tooth’ or tusk shells from scaphopod mollusks. The name ‘dentalium’ is from the genus representing 80 different species. The shells are conical and curved and usually whitish in color. Because of these characteristics, the shell somewhat resembles a miniature elephant’s tusk. They are hollow and open at both ends, the opening at the larger end is the main or anterior aperture of the shell. The smaller opening is known as the apical aperture. The mantle of Dentalium species is entirely within the shell. The foot extends from the larger end of the shell and is used to burrow through the substrate. They position their head down in the substrate, with the apical tip of the shell projecting up into the water. These mollusks live on seafloor sediment, feeding on microscopic organisms, detritus, and foraminiferans. Traditionally, the shells were harvested from the sea bed at a depth of about 50 feet (15 m) using a long broom-like tool. Dentalium shells, mostly from Dentalia pretiosum, were a commodity widely used by First Nations and Native Americans along the west coast of North America from the Arctic to Southern California for over 2500 years. The shells were circulated by coastal groups, traded with western Athapaskan groups in the boreal forests, Arctic coastal groups extending to the MacKenzie River Inuit, and with the prairie plains groups including the Blackfoot and Hidatsa as far east as the Great Lakes. The shells were strung together in units that determined their value, with the standard unit being 40 shells to the fathom (1.8 m). Shells were used for personal adornment, as decorative elements on clothing and utilitarian items, and to purchase a wide range of items including canoes, houses, ceremonial regalia, tobacco, food, furs, and even to pay for doctoring, wives, or fines. Among many Native American tribes such as the Chinook and Coast Salish, dentalia were valued in the same way as were canoes and slaves, all of which connoted great wealth and which were prized possessions to be distributed among chosen survivors after a warrior’s death. Read more here and here. Explore more of Quatsino and Quatsino Sound here: