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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 First Nations of the Central Coast region of the Canadian province of 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. 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.

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


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

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.[6]

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. 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.


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. ^ "Laddle with Skull". Brooklyn Museum. Retrieved 22 July 2014. 


External links[edit]