naaʔuu presents Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation culture to the world


Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation/Tofino - Sculptures and masks carved from ancient red cedar have long been a way to document historic events for Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation. Brought to life through song and dance, these masks have been a way to pass stories down through the generations.

This is the essence of naaʔuu, a new Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation visitor experience inspired by the concept of the potlatch. A traditional event that was central to Indigenous people’s lives here for thousands of years, the Canadian federal government banned its practice for decades.

First launched in spring 2023, naaʔuu returns May through June 2024 with an invitation for visitors to learn about Tla-o-qui-aht culture, language and art. 

Watch naaʔuu: A Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation Cultural Experience on YouTube.

“We are excited to welcome you into our house, to share a little bit of who we are, in our own words,” says Hjalmer Wenstob, naaʔuu co-producer in 2023.

Hosted at the Tla-o-qui-aht-owned Best Western Plus Tin Wis Resort in Tofino, naaʔuu ticket-holders are invited to gather inside the resort’s conference centre, which has been transformed to look and feel like a traditional longhouse.

“Masks were not made to sit on a wall,” says Wenstob. “Rather, [they’re meant to] become a focal point of transcending events teleporting those in their midst to become more soulful citizens."

The naaʔuu experience is inspired by potlatch ceremonies and includes a delicious dinner that celebrates traditional coastal cuisine prepared by Chef Ian Riddick, with support from his Heartwood Kitchen team and Tla-o-qui-aht food suppliers.

“Potlatches were culturally central to the Tla-o-qui-aht, Nuu-chah-nulth (the Nation Government across Vancouver Island) and across the Pacific Northwest," Chef Riddick says, "These events are about gift giving, coming together and feasting.”

For Wenstob this new offering is a way to see his nation’s language and culture further weave itself into Tofino's multi-million-dollar tourism economy.

Having access to First Nations culture when visitors experience Tofino has been something many have been seeking, especially as interest in Tla-o-qui-aht continues to grow.

The world has been following the Nation's sustainability approach through their Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks establishment, even before National Geographic featured them this past summer in a multi-page spread.

In 2023, I was part of a photo and video shoot that converted the Tin Wis Conference Centre into a traditional Tla-o-qui-aht long house, where guests experience song, dance, drumming, carving and more, served over a delicious meal in collaboration with the Heartwood Grill. Images and this video ideally give prospective audiences a taste of what they are in for. 

“Understandably we have been reserved to share publicly any of our culture for fear of it being taken away,” explains Wenstob. 

As recently as 30 or 40 years ago, Wenstob and Tla-o-qui-aht citizens had to live in fear of any cultural displays, given the Government’s attempt to eradicate their culture.

Now, Tla-o-qui-aht sees a path that recognizes tourism as a vehicle to their future success. This is a nation rich in experiences within one of the world’s most storied biospheres. 

Proceeds from naaʔuu ticket sales will go towards keeping Tla-o-qui-aht homelands protected and restored via the Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks program (which you can read more about here).

“Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks established a no-go zone for much of their homelands against logging and mining which has kept this area as many know it,” explains Wenstob.

Through naaʔuu, the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation invite you into their long house, to join in the experience and live through naaʔuu’s definition “come together and feast.” 

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