Detail of a 19th-century bentwood chest
by Heiltsuk artist Captain Richard Carpenter (Du'klwayella)
|Regions with significant populations|
|Canada ( British Columbia)|
|traditional tribal religion|
The Heiltsuk //, also Bella Bella, 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. 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 on large permanent 'winter villages,' sophisticated use of wood, stone and other items, complex ceremonies and elaborate social interactions culminating in the 'potlatch.'
Rediscovered in recent years by a collaboration between archaeologists and traditional knowledge-holders, clam gardens extend throughout the coast of BC.
The Heiltsuk were renowned 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. 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.
"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."
Founding of 'Bella Bella' at McLoughlin Bay
Between 1832 and 1900 some of the Heiltsuk built a village in McLoughlin Bay, adjacent to the Hudson's Bay Company Fort McLoughlin. Called Bella Bella or Qlts, the community saw a number of other Heiltsuk groups join through the late 1800s.
Move from Old Bella Bella to new Bella Bella
The Heiltsuk community at Old Bella Bella (located at McLoughlin Bay) decided to relocate the community to the site of the present-day village of Bella Bella, BC (aka Waglisla). By 1903 the Heiltsuk had founded and largely moved into the current village of Bella Bella.
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[when?] 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
The Heiltsuk have continuously maintained they have the right to self-determination and continue to hold title to the Territory. Accordingly, many members have asserted rights. From this situation arose recognition by the Supreme Court of Canada (in R. v. Gladstone) of a Heiltsuk commercial Aboriginal right to herring. This was a first for Canada.
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 and Canada have been in dispute over implementation of the Gladstone decision and related management issues.
This dispute boiled over during the 2015 herring season with the Heiltsuk occupying a DFO office for four days. The dispute was sparked when DFO allowed a herring seine fishery that the Heiltsuk had opposed, citing continuing conservation concerns and doubts regarding DFO's predictive model. The crisis ended when the herring gillnet fleet departed the area without fishing.
Traditionally, the Heiltsuk divided the year into a secular summer harvesting season and a winter sacred season, when most ceremonies were conducted.
"The pattern of Heiltsuk resource use has changed somewhat in the past two hundred years, but has been remarkably stable given the pressures and changes that have been experienced by the Heiltsuk people. The Heiltsuk year is divided into two primary parts, the winter ceremonial season and the harvest season. These divisions are general; some harvest may occur during the winter and the odd ceremony may be required during the harvest season, but the distinction is quite clear."
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.
"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."
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 involved ceremonial cannibalism and rituals to return to humanity. 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.
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. The Heiltsuk canoe "Gilwa" has made many trips since being carved in the 1980s.
The federal government, spurred by missionaries seeking to destroy First Nations culture, outlawed the Potlatch under the Indian Act. The ban began in the 1870s but was not fully enforced until later, most vociferously after 1923. Heiltsuk Chiefs were angered by the repression of the ban and the missionary interference in their customs. The ban lasted until the Indian Act was amended in 1951. According to Heiltsuk oral tradition, though the ban was lifted, no one told the Heiltsuk at the time. The missionaries rightly saw the potlatch as the basis for Heiltsuk (and more broadly for other First Nations on what anthropologists label the Northwest Coast) social and political organization, and as the most obvious expression of non-christian beliefs. The British Imperial philosophy of the time included a perceived superiority of British culture and a policy converting other cultures to christianity, among other things.
Though the potlatch system did not die out entirely among the Heiltsuk, it was forced underground. Missionary influence in Bella Bella was significant from the late 19th Century. The missionary served as religious authority, doctor (with control over health), and magistrate. Chiefs responded by hosting Christmas feasts, where even the most ardent colonist could not stop the distribution of gifts. Reports of feasts held in the houses of chiefs from this time include accounts of the chiefs simply waiting out the missionary until he got too tired and went home to bed. Then they could conduct their traditional business.
Heiltsuk Art and Ceremonial Expression
The Heiltsuk were well-known for their skills as carpenters, carvers, painters, and ceremonial experts.
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.
Early known Heiltsuk artists from the colonial period include:
- Chief Robert Bell (1859-1904)
- Enoch (d. 1904)
- Captain Carpenter (1841-1931)
- General Dick (aka Old Dick - 1822-1902?)
- Daniel Houstie (1880-1912)
Heiltsuk Culture (Post-1951)
The 1951 amendment to the Indian Act (Canada's Law regarding First Nations), removed some of the most repressive elements, including the ban on the potlatch. While the Heiltsuk continued to practice elements of the feast system in secret, it was not until after the ban that it began to emerge into public light again. During the late 1960s and continuing through the 1980s the Heiltsuk experienced a revival of potlatching and feasting that continues to this day. Where once the community was dominated by a strict version of Methodist religion, by the 1990s the Heiltsuk were once again regularly hosting potlatches, feasts and other ceremonial events.
All over BC a resurgence in First Nations cultural expressions has been occurring. The Heiltsuk are part of this cultural and political rise, seeing an increase in artists, carvers, singing, and efforts to strengthen and restore the language. Arts that were in danger of being lost are being taught again.
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. This gathering was a major event and part of a wider movement among First Nations to revive and strengthen the traditions of ocean-going 'dugout' canoes. 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). The exhibit traveled after its initial showing in the Royal Ontario Museum, to Vancouver (MOA 2002), Montreal (McCord Museum MGill) and Owen Sound Ontario.
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.
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 Heiltsuk language is part of what is called the Wakashan language family. 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.
"Heiltsuk, a rich and complex language with both conversational and ceremonial forms, is spoken at Bella Bella (Waglisla) and Klemtu. Like Oowekyala (a closely related language spoken by the Oweekeno of Rivers Inlet), Haisla (the language of the people of Kitiamaat), and Kwakwala (spoken by the Kwakwaka'wakw to the south), it is a North Wakashan language."
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Heiltsuk.|
- Indian Act
- The Potlatch Ban (Canada)
- Northwest Coast art
- Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast
- R. v. Gladstone
- The Canadian Crown and Aboriginal peoples
- First Nations
- Fort McLoughlin
- Old Bella Bella
- Bella Bella, British Columbia
- Heiltsuk Nation
- Pritzker 166
- "About Us." Heiltsuk Tribal Council. Retrieved 19 July 2012.
- William C. Sturtevant, 1978. Handbook of North American Indians: Northwest Coast
- "A Little About the Heiltsuk." Heiltsuk Cultural Education Centre. Retrieved 19 July 2012.
- Pritzker p. 166–167
- Duff, Wilson. The Indian History of British Columbia. Volume 1: The Impact of the Whiteman. BC Provincial Museum. 1964
- 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
- Large, R. Geddes (1968). Drums and Scalpel: From Native Healer to Physician on the North Pacific Coast. Vancouver: Mitchell Press Limited.
- Black, Martha (1997). Bella Bella: A Season of Heiltsuk Art. Toronto/Vancouver/Seattle: Royal Ontario Museum/Douglas & McIntyre/University of Washington Press. p. 9. ISBN 1-55054-556-6.
- http://ccira.ca/site/communities/heiltsuk.html accessed 13 Oct. 2014.
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- Hilton, Susanne F. "Haihais, Bella Bella, and Oowekeeno" in Handbook of North American Indians - Vol. 7 the Northwest Coast. Smithsonian Institution. 1990. p. 318.
- Occupation, Use and Management of the "Sakai-Spiller Hotspot" by the Heiltsuk Nation. Heiltsuk Tribal Council. April 2000. p. 21. ISBN 0-9687018-0-9.
- McLennan, Bill and Karen Duffek. The Transforming Image: Painted Arts of the Northwest Coast First Nations. UBC Press. 2000. ISBN 0-7748-0427-0
- 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
- "Laddle with Skull". Brooklyn Museum. Retrieved 22 July 2014.
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- Black, Martha (1997). Bella Bella: A Season of Heiltsuk Art. Toronto/Vancouver/Seattle: Royal Ontario Museum/Douglas & McIntyre/University of Washington Press. pp. 110–112. ISBN 1-55054-556-6.
- Neel, David The Great Canoes: Reviving a Northwest Coast Tradition. Douglas & McIntyre. 1995. p.p. 2-3. ISBN 1-55054-185-4
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- Rath, John C. (1981). A Practical Heiltsuk-English Dictionary. Nation Museum of Man Mercury Series.
- Black, Martha (1997). Bella Bella: A Season of Heiltsuk Art. Toronto/Vancouver/Seattle: Royal Ontario Museum/Douglas & McIntyre/University of Washington Press. p. xii. ISBN 1-55054-556-6.
- Barry Pritzker (2000). A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and Peoples. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-513897-9.
- McLennan, Bill and Karen Duffek. The Transforming Image: Painted Arts of the Northwest Coast First Nations. UBC Press. 2000. ISBN 0-7748-0427-0
- Neel, David. The Great Canoes: Reviving a Northwest Coast Tradition. Douglas & McIntyre. 1995. ISBN 1-55054-185-4
- Black, Martha. Bella Bella: A Season of Heiltsuk Art. Royal Ontario Museum. 1997. ISBN 1-55054-556-6