It is pageant night, and stress is running high.
Children and parents dart around backstage. Outfits are organized. Bites to eat are snuck in between nervous laughter.
Peeks are taken from behind the beige curtain separating the temporary dressing room from the audience, whose numbers steadily grow leading up to the 7 p.m. pageant start time. Cousins and pageant contestants Beverley Mountain-Robinson and Tamika Mountain, both 12, talk excitedly but share how nervous they are. “But it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about having fun,” says Mountain-Robinson.
This is no ordinary pageant. This is the Salmon Prince and Princess Pageant in Alert Bay, a night for Kwakwaka’wakw youth and the community to share and celebrate knowledge of their culture, and a night that marks the kickoff to the June Sports weekend, an event that draws visitors and soccer players in huge numbers to this remote island community.
At 6:30 p.m., one of the six event organizers, Pewi Alfred, who has been involved with the pageant for two decades, calls the young contestants over to choose names to see who goes in what order. The young people buzz.
The audience is not sitting in a nondescript event hall, but are instead on long benches inside the walls of the ‘Namgis First Nation Big House, a towering structure with a sand floor and a huge fire burning in the middle. Smoke exits through a large opening in the ceiling, and rain outside echoes on the roof as the 2015 Salmon Prince and Princess Pageant begins.
The contestants are judged in five categories, including knowing their Kwak’wala name, introducing themselves in English and Kwak’wala, sharing of culture through a song, dance, or story, an oral presentation, and a skill-testing question. The more Kwak’wala spoken by the contestants, the more marks they receive.
Tonight the contestants are Mountain, Mountain-Robinson, Jakob Dawson, and Shantal Cook. Mountain-Robinson says she entered “just to see how it feels,” and says that her family has been very helpful in preparing her.
Dawson, a charismatic 12-year-old with big brown eyes, is the only male contestant and knows he will be crowned Salmon Prince before the pageant even begins. His mother, Tanis Dawson, is beaming as her son gets ready, donning a beautiful 100-year-old family blanket and an intricate headpiece that belonged to his grandmother.
Young singers and drummers take their place at a long log behind the stage as the event is introduced. As each contestant walks out one at a time, the ones backstage peek out from the curtain and nervously eye the judges seated at a long table.
The young women all perform unique dances accompanied by drumming, the dances impressive both in their complexity but also in length; Alfred confirms that they spent hours upon hours practising.
The dances see them using the whole space of the Big House, moving around the roaring fire while the audience remains transfixed through each one. Dawson tells a story to the audience that symbolizes bullying, punctuating his storytelling with lots of giggling and a big smile. The compulsory questions pulled at random have the contestants talk about where they see their people in 20 years, respect, and about a place of significance in their area and why it is important.
As the pageant draws to a close, the four contestants gather behind the curtain as they wait to hear the results of their hard work. For the Salmon Princess, Mountain is the second runner up, Mountain-Robinson is the 1st runner up, and Shantal Cook is crowned the 2015 Salmon Princess. After accepting his Salmon Prince title, Dawson tells the crowd, “I am so surprised I won,” to laughter.
As the crowd dwindles inside the Big House after the pageant, the young contestants linger with their families, happy to have been part of an event that celebrates their culture and community so fully.