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For other uses, see Heiltsuk (disambiguation).
Richard Carpenter bent-wood chest detail 02.jpg
Detail of a 19th-century bentwood chest
by Heiltsuk artist Captain Richard Carpenter (Du'klwayella)
Total population
1,874 (1995)[1]
Regions with significant populations
 Canada ( British Columbia)
English, Hailhzaqvla[2]
traditional tribal religion

The Heiltsuk /ˈhltsək/,[3] also Bella Bella,[1] are an Indigenous people of the Central Coast region in British Columbia, centred on the island communities of Bella Bella and Klemtu. The government of the Heiltsuk people is the Heiltsuk Nation. Its largest community is Bella Bella.


Ancestors of the Heiltsuk have been in the Central Coast region of British Columbia since at least 7190 BCE.[4] The Heiltsuk are the descendants of a number of tribal groups who came together in Bella Bella in the 19th century.

The Heiltsuk practice(d) a set of cultural expressions that have been grouped together with other, similar groups under the term 'Northwest Coast.' These expressions include organization into extended family groups, linkage to origin stories, ranking and differentiation in status, ownership of non-physical prerogatives, seasonal movement to harvest resources centred around large permanent 'winter villages,' sophisticated use of wood, stone and other items, complex ceremonies and elaborate social interactions culminating in the 'potlatch.'

The Heiltsuk were renown among their neighbours for their artistic, military, ceremonial and spiritual expertise.

Their first contact with Europeans was most likely in 1793, and the name "Bella Bella" dates back to 1834.[5] They generally refer to themselves as Heiltsuk. As with many other indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast they were subject to drastic population loss as a result of introduced diseases and heightened military conflicts with neighbouring peoples during the fur trade era.[6]

As the fur trade began they also became known as skilled traders. Highly skilled in canoe making and later shipbuilding, a number of trading schooners were made in Bella Bella by the canoe makers who had learned to make western style vessels. For a time they acted as middlemen in the fur trade, benefiting from early access to guns. The traders complain in some of their records of the Heiltsuk being hard to trade with, passing off land otter skins for sea otter, demanding extra large blankets, then cutting them to standards size for retrade and sewing the extra pieces together to make more blankets.

Heiltsuk (Bella Bella) (Native American). House Post, from a Set of Four, 19th century. Cedar wood, Brooklyn Museum

"A significant feature of Bella Bella society was the development of a cadre of highly skilled artisans noted for their construction and decoration of bentwood boxes, chests, canoes, and horn spoons and ladles. After White contact the skills of these artisans were turned to the market demand for canoes and boxes."[7]

Like other First Nations on the coast, the Heiltsuk were subject to repeated epidemics, primarily of smallpox, that killed the majority of the population. This population collapse caused the Heiltsuk to coalesce into fewer communities, and reduced the population to just under 225 by 1919. Like other First Nations, the expected demise of the Heiltsuk did not occur. Instead, the population rebounded and is now well over 2,500.

When the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission visited Bella Bella in 1913, they were told:

"We are the natives of this Country and we want all the land we can get. We feel that we own the whole of this Country, every bit of it, and ought to have something to say about it. The Government have not bought any land from us so far as we know and we are simply lending this land to the Government. We own it all. We will never change our minds in that respect, and after we are dead our children will still hold on to the same ideas. It does not matter how long the Government take to determine this question, we will remain the same in our ideas about this matter... We consider that the Government is stealing that land from us, and we also understand that it is unlawful for the Government to take this land." ~ Bob Anderson[8]


Heiltsuk, Ladle with Skull, 19th century, Brooklyn Museum

Traditionally, the Heiltsuk divided the year into a secular summer harvesting season and a winter sacred season, when most ceremonies were conducted.[9]

The Heiltsuk were (and are) renowned for their ceremonies, arts, and spiritual power. The two dimensional style of design - called Formline art - or Northwest Coast Style - extends along the north coast, the central coast and down to Vancouver Island. The Heiltsuk are part of this tradition - with several painters from the historic period being recorded. Among these Captain Carpenter, a canoe-maker and painter is perhaps the most well-known.[10]

"Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, Heiltsuk-speaking tribes occupied numerous independent villages throughout their territory; the names of twenty-four permanent villages and established temporary camps have been recorded. It appears that diverse styles of painting were practised by Heiltsuk painters of this period and perhaps later. These styles most likely originated within individual villages or social groups."[11]

Skull imagery is usually associated with the Tánis (Hamatsa) ceremony practiced by the Heiltsuk and Kwakwawa’wakw people. Hamatsa is a secret society that is based upon cannibalism. Young males are initiated into the community during a four-part ritual in which they are symbolically transformed from flesh-eating cannibals, a state equated with death, into well-behaved members of society. The skull thus symbolizes the rebirth of initiates as they come back from the dead. Skull items are used during the final stages of the ceremony: ritual feeding of the skull, possibly using special ceremonial spoons, precedes a ceremonial meal for the initiates, and the officiating medicine man might wear a skull headdress.[12]

Heiltsuk culture has been and is known for its ceremonial, military, and artistic skills. The Heiltsuk were early participants in the revival of the ocean-going cedar canoes during the 1980s, attending Expo '86, participating in the 1989 Paddle to Seattle.[13] The Heiltsuk canoe "Gilwa" has made many trips since being carved in the 1980s.

In 1993 the Heiltsuk hosted a gathering of ocean-going canoes, known as 'Qatuwas. First Nations from as far away as Washington State and all along the BC Coast paddled to Bella Bella.[14] A second canoe gathering occurred in July 2014 - also known as 'Qatuwas - and featured more canoes (close to 60) than the original festival in 1993. Both events (1993 and 2014 'Qatuwas Festivals) featured ocean-going canoes from many other First Nations, cultural sharing including dancing, singing,sharing stories, and of course food. The 1993 event more than doubled the population of the community for the ten days it ran.

The popular exhibit Kaxlaya Gvi'ilas was a partnership between the Heiltsuk, the Museum of Anthropology (UBC), the Royal Ontario Museum, and Martha Black (Art Historian and author of Bella Bella: A Season of Heiltsuk Art). A collaborative exhibit, it contained a combination of historical pieces from the Royal Ontario Museum's R.W. Large Collection and contemporary artwork from the Heiltsuk village of Waglisla (Bella Bella).[15] The exhibit traveled after its initial showing in the Royal Ontario Museum, to Vancouver (MOA 2002),[15] Montreal (McCord Museum MGill) and Owen Sound Ontario.

The Heiltsuk have always based their food gathering significantly on the sea. The 1997 Gladstone decision (R. v. Gladstone ) recognized a commercial Aboriginal right to herring - particularly herring eggs - based on the pre-contact history of harvest and trade.

The Heiltsuk are preparing to travel to Massett, Haida Gwaii for a renewal of a peace treaty on September 20, 2014 that dates to the end of the Heiltsuk-Haida wars of the 19th Century.


The Heiltsuk language is part of what is called the Wakashan language family.[2] Related to other languages in the group as French is to Spanish, the Heiltsuk language is similar to Wuikyala (the language of the Rivers Inlet people). Heiltsuk, Wuikyala, Haisla and Kwak'wala languages form the Northern Wakashan language group. Heiltsuk and Wuikyala are both tonal languages, which Kwak'wala is not, and both are considered dialects of the Heiltsuk-Oowekyala language.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Pritzker 166
  2. ^ a b "About Us." Heiltsuk Tribal Council. Retrieved 19 July 2012.
  3. ^ William C. Sturtevant, 1978. Handbook of North American Indians: Northwest Coast
  4. ^ "A Little About the Heiltsuk." Heiltsuk Cultural Education Centre. Retrieved 19 July 2012.
  5. ^ Pritzker p. 166–167
  6. ^ Duff, Wilson. The Indian History of British Columbia. Volume 1: The Impact of the Whiteman. BC Provincial Museum. 1964
  7. ^ Hilton, Susanne F. "Haihais, Bella Bella, and Oowekeeno" in Handbook of the North American Indians: Volume 7 the Northwest Coast. Smithsonian Institution. Washington. 1990. p. 316
  8. ^ http://ccira.ca/site/communities/heiltsuk.html accessed 13 Oct. 2014.
  9. ^ Hilton, Susanne F. "Haihais, Bella Bella, and Oowekeeno" in Handbook of North American Indians - Vol. 7 the Northwest Coast. Smithsonian Institution. 1990. p. 318.
  10. ^ McLennan, Bill and Karen Duffek. The Transforming Image: Painted Arts of the Northwest Coast First Nations. UBC Press. 2000. ISBN 0-7748-0427-0
  11. ^ McLennan, Bill and Karen Duffek. The Transforming Image: Painted Arts of Northwest Coast First Nations. UBC Press. 2000. p. 165 ISBN 0-7748-0427-0
  12. ^ "Laddle with Skull". Brooklyn Museum. Retrieved 22 July 2014. 
  13. ^ Neel, David The Great Canoes: Reviving a Northwest Coast Tradition. Douglas & McIntyre. 1995. ISBN 1-55054-185-4
  14. ^ Neel, David The Great Canoes: Reviving a Northwest Coast Tradition. Douglas & McIntyre. 1995. p.p. 2-3. ISBN 1-55054-185-4
  15. ^ a b Culhane, Erin. "Many Hands Responsible for Kaxlaya Gvilas Exhibit". ammsa.com. ammsa. Retrieved 16 May 2015. 


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