First Nations - Land Rights and Environmentalism in British Columbia


Heiltsuk and Nuxalk hereditary chiefs and elders in traditional regalia protesting against the aquaculture industry at Ocean Falls on 15 January 2003 during an International Day of Action. Protest signs say: "We Are the Salmon People" and "Keep Our Habitat Farm Free." The industrial fish farm is owned by Omega Salmon, a subsidiary of the Norwegian mega corp PanFish.   Photo: Forest Action Network



Glditas Daqvu (Ingram-Mooto)

In 2003 without First Nations consultation or accomodation, the Norwegian company PanFish - Omega built a fish farm hatchery at Ocean Falls. An indigenous protest and blockade took place on 15 January 2003 that included a flotilla of some 30 boats and over 100 people, mostly from Bella Bella and Bella Coola (the Heiltsuk & Nuxalk communities) but also from Alaska and Washington. Elders and chiefs in full regalia assembled at Ocean Falls to make clear their unanimous opposition to the Atlantic salmon hatchery (above).

Omega fish farm construction, Ocean Falls, 2003.
Photo: Ruskin Construction


Omega fish farm construction, 2003.
Photo: Ruskin Construction

To facilitate the Omega fish farm at Ocean Falls, a 55m pier and a cargo ramp (above) was constructed, and one thousand timber pilings were driven 18m into the ground to provide the foundations for the fish rearing tanks (left). Ocean Falls is an ancient indigenous village and resource site located at the head of an isolated coastal fjord. Until 1901, when the BC government leased the area for power exploitation and a pulp mill, Ocean Falls was part of an intact ancient rainforest. Since then, one polluting industry after the other has made their destructive impact.

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The Heiltsuk seasonal village was located at the base of the "Liak," a spectacular waterfall which flowed from several pristine lakes into Cousins Inlet. The waterfall was destroyed when the lakes were damned to provide power for a sawmill and pulp plant. In 1906 the first settlers arrived and began clearing the land for a townsite. A 1916 photo reveals the scale of the industrial havoc (right).

Pulp and paper mill, Ocean Falls, c. 1920.
Photo: BC Archives (McRae)


Pulp and paper mill, Ocean Falls, 1916.
Photo: BC Archives

The pulp mill was completed by 1920 (left). Huge amounts of timber were clearcut logged from the mountain forests, causing erosion and the pristine waters were polluted with mill waste. Ocean Falls had a population of 3,500 at its peak but in 1973, Crown Zellerbach (the mill's owner since 1954) closed its operations due to declining profitability.

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Derelict hotel (left) & pulp mill (right), Ocean Falls, 2003.
Photo: John Harvey

The destruction of this rainforest Paradise is emblematic of the white invasion everywhere on the Northwest Coast. Colonialists set up canneries, mines and sawmills - boom - to - bust commercial enterprises that exploited the rich natural resources while they lasted. With these, company "villages" founded to house workers for the industries like at Ocean Falls came and went. In contrast, indigenous villages such as Bella Bella and Bella Coola have continued to thrive as communities despite the considerable economic hardship caused by the Indian Reserve system. In view of this contrast, one might expect sympathetic respect for the action of the Heiltsuk and Nuxalk hereditary chiefs who travelled by flotilla to Ocean Falls on 15 January 2003 to protest against the farmed fish hatchery (right). Instead they were met by a contingent of 13 Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers in full combat gear, armed and accompanied by guard dogs. This was insulting to the indigenous representatives who had made it clear prior to the protest that it would be peaceful and dignified.


Today a second growth forest has reclaimed Ocean Falls, while the abandoned toxic industrial site remains derelict (left), polluted with the pulp mill's toxic 50 year legacy of chemical waste. Contaminants include dioxin, PCBs, nonylphenol, chloroform, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and heavy metals. Pulp mills are the largest single source of airborne dioxins in BC. Dioxine is a carcinogen and mutagen; it persists in the environment and accumulates in animal tissues.

Protest flotilla, Ocean Falls, 15 January 2003.
Photo: AKU (Jutta Kill)

Fish farm protest, Ocean Falls, 2003.
Photo: Ian McAllister

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Heiltsuk and Nuxalk protesters, Ocean Falls, 2003.
Photo: Forest Action Network


Also indigenous youths were present at the 15 January 2003 protest against the Omega fish hatchery construction at Ocean Falls (left). Soon after the protest, the Heiltsuk Tribal Council and the Heiltsuk Hemas Society filed a lawsuit against the BC government and Omega Salmon Group Ltd: "Despite being well informed about the importance of this area to the Heiltsuk, the government's blatant disregard for our title and rights has felt like a slap in the face. It has created a situation where legal action is our only recourse to counter the threat that aquaculture poses to our way of life." Chief Harvey Humchitt: "We continue to rely heavily upon our marine resources for subsistence as well as for cultural and social uses. The proposed hatchery threatens our way of life and we will use every available legal tool to protect my people and stop this development" Press Release (24 February 2004).


Farmed salmon protest, Vancouver 2003.
Photo: Nuxalk House of Smayusta

Aboriginal fishing rights in BC have been infringed upon time after time, starting in the late 19th century when settlers imposed a fisheries management system that served them. Colonial dispossession was facilitated by fisheries law and policy that "constructed fish as a common property resource" says Douglas Cole in his authoritative book "Landing Native Fisheries" (2008). The government's 1924 Bella Coola Map shows how the surveying and naming of indigenous lands were part of a colonialist strategy of appropriation (right). Cannery sites are marked as well as large blocks of surveyed lands noted as Timber Licenses and Sales. "It was scarcely 200 years ago that European and other immigrants started coming to the coast. First came the fur traders and then the explorers, then in rapid succession, canneries, mining and logging operations, missionaries, reserve commisioners, government agents, and government and legal systems that asserted themselves all over preexisting indigenous systems" Heiltsuk Cultural Education Centre.


The Heiltsuk policy of "zero tolerance" toward the aquaculture industry in their territory is widely shared by other First Nations. A protest in 2003 at the federal Department of Fisheries Office (DFO) in Vancouver was held by the Nuxalk, Heiltsuk and Ulkatcho Nations (left), all of whom have suffered the consequences of DFO mismanagement, ever since the colonial takeovers of their fisheries.

"Bella Coola Map," 1924. (red grid added)
BC Department of Lands

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PanFish - Omega joins the long list of corporations that have exploited the contested resources at Ocean Falls: Bella Coola Pulp & Paper; (1906); Ocean Falls (1909); Pacific Mills (1915); Crown Zellerback (1954); and the BC government's Ocean Falls Corporation (1973). None of them have shared their profits with the indigenous communities.

The PanFish - Omega hatchery produces some 10 million Atlantic salmon smolts annually for the BC aquaculture industry. The Nuxalk and Heiltsuk oppose this industry because of its threat to the survival of the wild salmon stocks. Their protest on 15 January 2003 at Ocean Falls was repeated on the same day during an "International Day of Protest" in Seattle, Vancouver, Hong Kong and Hamburg, Germany (right). See German coverage of the protest and indigenous support: Brennpunkt Ocean Falls (AKU).


BC fish farm protest, Hamburg, 2003.
Photo: AKU (Lydia Bartz)

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Orca in front of Bella Bella.
Photo: Doug Brown

The Heiltsuk oceanside village of Bella Bella (Waglisla) can be seen in the background of the photo (above) of a breaching orca, a spectacular scene captured by Heiltsuk nature photographer Doug Brown. About 1,200 out of a total of ca. 2,200 Heiltsuk band members live in Bella Bella, an indigenous community historically known as the Bella Bella Indian Reserve. Reserves were supposed to ensure that indigenous peoples could continue their vital fisheries economy, and Bella Bella has been an important coastal fisheries centre. The Heiltsuk people are dependent on ocean resources for staple foods such as the Chinook salmon, the tyee or king salmon (right). This most prized species of Pacific wild salmon suffered a disasterous collapse in 2008, and an unprecedented fishing ban has been enacted along parts of the Northwest Coast.


Bella Bella

Heiltsuk Doug Brown with Chinook salmon.
Photo: Doug Brown

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Some traditional Heiltsuk seafoods listed by
Heiltsuk Elder and Hemas Chief Fred Reid

horse clam
razor clam
Manila clam
butter clam
rock clam
pinto abalone
flat abalone
goose barnacle
giant barnacle
thatched barnacle
acorn barnacle
knotted cockle
Pacific tomcod
kelp crab
purple shore crab
hairy shore crab
Dungeness crab
peak crab
crown (fox) crab
red rock crab
porcelain crab
tanner crabs

ling cod
kelp greenling
Pacific herring
giant kelp
bull kelp
leech kelp
black mussel
horse mussel
blue mussel
pile perch
kelp perch
Quillback rockfish
China rockfish
yelloweye rockfish
canary rockfish
copper rockfish
tiger rockfish
vermilion rockfish
yellowtail rockfish
black rockfish
Pink salmon

chinook salmon
chum salmon
coho salmon
sockeye salmon
Pacific salmon
sea cucumber
steelhead salmon
black cod
spiny dogfish
blue shark
Coonstripe shrimp
black-tailed shrimp
Long skate
Pacific squid
Dolly Varden trout
rainbow trout
Purple sea urchin
sand dollar
giant red urchin
green urchin
sleeper shark

The in depth fisheries knowledge of the Heiltsuk and their dependence on the sea for their livelihood was made clear in a series of testimonies (right) given during a government organized panel on aquaculture held in Bella Bella on 5 October 2006: Report on Proceedings. The unanimous rejection of aquaculture by the Heiltsuk was a powerful message to industry - government. Hereditary Chief Fred Reid testified through his son and provided an astonishingly long list of traditional Heiltusk seafoods (above). The Heiltsuk have an Aboriginal Fisheries Strategy that is implemented by the Heiltsuk Fisheries Program, an indigenous initiative to monitor commercial as well as "Food, Social and Ceremonial" fisheries in Heiltsuk Territory.


Heiltsuk carving of a sculpin, c. 1890.
Collection: Smithsonian Institution

The sculpin fish (above) was known to the Heiltsuk as the "Lord of the Sea" and many different sculpin species lived in Heiltsuk waters, ranging in size from tiny to 20 lb giants.

Raija Reid
(for Fred Reid)
William Gladstone
Chief Gary Housty
Mel Innes
Ross Wilson
Andy Peers Sr.
Ellen Humchitt
Brian Starr
Steve Carpenter
Keith Gladstone
Peter R. Mason Jr.
Charles Gladstone
Susan Brown
Michelle Vickers
Georgia White
Ken Wilson
Jeff Brown
Reg Moody
Michael Wilson

Bella Bella 2006

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"Bella Bella, from Steamer Pacific," 1868.
Photo: Eadweard Muybridge (click to enlarge)

The Bella Bella Cannery, owned by the British mega corporation BC Packers, was located across the bay from the Bella Bella Indian Reserve (right) and although native people worked in the cannery "village," none of the vast profits made from exploiting the Heiltsuk salmon stocks were shared with the Heiltsuk community. Bella Bella had an indigenous self government that was recognized by the newcomers who set up a hospital and churches. In 1903 the Heiltsuk purchased a sawmill and produced lumber for new houses, a wharf and a community boardwalk.


The unique historical importance of Bella Bella as a centre for commercial steamship travel along the coast is evident in a ca. 1870 stereoscopic view (left). The early steamships had wood fueled engines, and over a dozen wood cutters worked for two days to provide enough fuel for one day of travel. Thus the land around Bella Bella, on Campbell Island, was deforested long before the Indian Reserve was set up here in 1870.

"Cannery at Bella Bella," c. 1920.
Photo: BC Archives


When a government reserve commision visited Bella Bella on 25 August 1913, it much praised the success of the native community, and the final commission report included a photo of the remarkable "plank road" (right). The Heiltsuk testimonies are compelling evidence of Aboriginal Title and Rights. Chief Bob Anderson: "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 ... We consider that the Government is stealing that land from us."

The Chief also rejected colonial fisheries law: "We think that the money which has been received for all these fishing licenses in the past should have been (and should be) paid over to us, as all the fishing privileges rightly belong to us Indians. The place is ours. All the money which is recieved from the licenses issued to the Cannery people should be paid over to us. This place was ours long before the Cannery people ever came here, and before any white people ever came into the country at all" McKenna McBride Report.

For Our Children's
Tomorrows - Heiltsuk Land Use Plan - 2005

"Since time immemorial,
we, the Heiltsuk people have
managed all of our territory
with respect and reverence
for the life it sustains, using
knowledge of marine and land
resources passed down for
generations. We have
maintained a healthy and
functioning environment
while meeting our social and
economic needs over
hundreds of generations."


Plank road, Bella Bella, 25 August 1913.
Photo: BC Archives

The Heiltsuk Nation has taken many outstanding initiatives through a wide variety of educational programs to document and preserve their rich cultural heritage and language. "Over thousands of years, our culture has continued to evolve through an ancient and continuing dialogue between our people, the Creator, and this environment" Heiltsuk Cultural Education Centre. In 2005 the Heiltsuk Nation produced a land use plan (left): For Our Children's Tomorrows. It takes a strong position against salmon farming and oil & gas exploration and sets its own agenda for the managing of Heiltsuk natural resources.

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Heiltsuk fishing boats at Bella Bella, 2007.
Photo: Doug Brown


R. v. Gladstone

The Heilsuk have had a number of successful legal rulings in their favour including the landmark Supreme Court of Canada case R. v. Gladstone (1996): Heiltsuk appellants Donald and William Gladstone versus the respondent Her Majesty The Queen. The case concerned the Aboriginal Right of the Heiltsuk to harvest and trade in fish products such as herring spawn on kelp. It was confirmed that the exchange and commercial trade of this product was a central and defining feature of pre contact Heiltsuk culture and therefor should be constitutionally protected by law.


Herring roe on kelp, French Creek, BC, 2008.
Photo: Lotus Johnson


Such is the legal importance of the 1996 Gladstone case that a decade or so later, in 2005, a conference dedicated to it was held at the First Nations House of Learning, University of British Columbia: Reconsidering R. v. Gladstone. Since the Gladstone decision, declining fishery stocks have resulted in aboriginal groups gaining exclusive commerical fishing licenses. Although this controversial policy was charged as race based and as violating the equality rights of non aboriginal fishermen, on 27 June 2008 Canada's top court confirmed it to be constitutional.

A photo of herring roe on kelp (left), shows a fuzzy foam in the left corner - this is the milt from the male herring which fertilizes the eggs. The commercial value of this BC product is very high in Japan, where it is known as "Kazunoko" and marketed under the "Yellow Diamonds" brand.

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Despite the Gladstone ruling, the non native roe herring fishery continues: Herring egg harvest angers BC natives. In protest, on 24 March 2004 Heiltsuk and Kitasoo members in 50 boats blocked a commercial herring fleet of about 40 vessels and declared the area a "no fishing zone." Two days later they protested again, at Canada's Department of Fisheries & Oceans in Vancouver. Heiltsuk spokesperson Reg Moody stated: "The commercial herring seine fishery will seriously impact the ability of Heiltsuk people to practice their Aboriginal Right guaranteed in the Canadian Constitution and affirmed in the Gladstone Case by the Supreme Court of Canada. We cannot allow the short - term interests of the commercial fishery to jeopardize the long - term rights the Heiltsuk have to harvest spawn on kelp."

Aboriginal traditions in Canada which demonstrate continuity with the practices, customs or traditions that existed prior to contact are explicitly protected by law. Heiltsuk fisheries traditions are richly evidenced in the landscape by historic salmon weirs (marked by the many tiny Heiltsuk Indian Reserves), by stone fish traps and by clam gardens. Yet the Heiltsuk people continue to be forced to engage in legal battles to protect their traditions and way of life.

Humpback, Higgins Lagoon, Heiltsuk Territory, 2007.
Photo: Ingmar Lee


Heiltsuk petroglyphs, Deer Pass.
Photo: Lisa Marie

"At the time of contact, the Heiltsuk peoples had a well - developed hunting, fishing, and gathering technologies including multiple techniques for preserving perishable food stuffs. They were able mariners and shrewd ecologists. They had a well - developed system of land ownership and resource management, and maintained extensive networks of sharing, redistribution and trading relationships that united the Heiltsuk groups and included other groups up and down the coast. Dramatic ceremonial systems, art forms and oral traditions kept cultural, economic and environmental knowledge alive and in constant review or practice" Heiltsuk Cultural Education Centre.

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"Seining Sockeye on Namu Creek," c. 1915.
Photo: BC Archives



Namu is an ancient Heiltsuk village and fishery site located not far from Bella Bella, at the confluence of Fitz Hugh Sound and Burke Channel. In 1893 the British company BC Packers opened a fish processing plant and cannery here to exploit the sockeye fishery. The cannery "village" lasted until 1969 when depleted fish stocks led to its abandonment. Today it is a derelict ruin. Heiltsuk member Pam Brown worked at Namu and wrote about the experience in her master's thesis in ethnology at the University of British Columbia: "Cannery Days: A Chapter in the Lives of the Heiltsuk." She also curated an exhibition on the subject in 1996 at the Museum of Anthropology in which she paid tribute to the work of the indigenous women who worked in the canneries.


Archaeological remains at Namu testify that people have been living here continuously for the past 9700 years, making it one of the oldest such sites in Canada. This fact was brought up during the 2006 government panel on aquaculture held in Bella Bella: "One of our other staples is a dependency on clam. In our history we know that at one point fish were scarce, so the first nations people literally had to rely on clams to supplement their diet. He wishes for you to know that we are all well aware - and the evidence at the Namu dig supports our claim - that we have been in this area for many, many, many generations - 10,000 years plus. Also, we do know there are 450 - plus clam beds in our territory. We use a lot of them " Raija Reid, on behalf of Chief Fred Reid: Report on Proceedings (5 October 2006).


Namu Cannery, 19 April 1906.
Photo: BC Archives (F. Swannell)

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The Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Simon Fraser University is conducting an archaeological excavation at Namu (right) under professor Roy Carlson. Unearthed artifacts include 32 flaked stone tools such as bifacial points and knives, choppers and scrapers, and ground and pecked stone tools. In 2005 the museum created a virtual exhibit describing the Namu excavation: A Journey To A New Land.

Illustration of a "First Peoples" woman.
Simon Fraser University: A Journey To A New Land


Dig at Namu, 2005.
Photo: Roy Carlson

The virtual exhibit explores how people may have arrived in the Americas some 12,000 years ago and looks at some of the scientific evidence and ideas that have been proposed. A photo manipulation recreates the possible appearance of a "First Peoples" woman at Namu (left).


Like Ocean Falls, Namu is today a derelict site, evidence of the failure of colonial settlements to survive on the BC coast once they had depleted the natural resources through excessive harvesting. Following a century of degradation, the waters and forests at Namu are reclaiming the site. Even the robust Namu boardwalk, constructed from ancient cedars, is rotting as is the Namu Hotel (right). See a photo gallery from 2003 by John Harvey: Nigei Island to Namu.

Namu in captivity

Namu film

Namu conquered


Derelict Namu boardwalk and hotel, 2003.
Photo: John Harvey

Most people know "Namu" as the name of a famous killer whale who was captured near the ancient Heiltsuk site in 1965 and taken to Seattle for public display (left). The abuse of these intelligent mammals reflects ill on settler society. See: The First Captive Killer Whales.

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Heiltsuk fish traps, Clatse, 2000.
Photo: Carsten Brinkmeier



"Gví'ilás" is an Heiltsuk word for customs and laws concerning the sustainable harvesting of Heiltsuk resources for sustenance, cultural, commercial and recreational use. The remarkable stone fish traps, still evident on many Heiltsuk beaches (left), are an example of how intensively salmon fisheries were stewarded. Heiltsuk archaeologist Xanius (Elroy White) presented an academic paper at the annual conference for Northwest Anthropology in April 2008, describing the use of stone traps to form holding pools for migrating chum salmon. Increasingly such ancient indigenous structures are used to prove Aboriginal Title and Rights.


The presence of fish weirs and clam gardens is proof of extensive and careful management, of food resources being "gardened" rather than gathered in the "wild." This is an important change in perspective with implications for treaty negotiations and land claims. European settlers mistakenly viewed land in the new colony as wild and uninhabited and therefore up for grabs. The clam gardens at Gale Passage, between Athlone and Dufferin Islands, have been continually harvested commercially by Heiltsuk clam diggers (right). Non native forest activist Ingmar Lee describes them as "demonstrating a sophisticated understanding of stonework engineering designed to withstand centuries of continuous, albeit gentle tidal action. They absolutely abound with clams; at first glance I estimate they have increased the clam habitat by as much as 30 percent and also they enhance the ability of the clams to grow bigger and faster."

Heiltsuk mechanical clam mask, c. 1900.
Photo: Smithsonian Institution


Clam gardens, Gale Passage, 2007.
Photo: Ingmar Lee

"The natural splendors of Heiltsuk territory evolved with a continuous and persistent human stewardship" says Lee "Generations of ancestors have influenced and shaped its magnificent efflorescence ... as with all advanced civilizations, they were woven into the evolving whelm of life, and such integration left no detrimental ecological impact. They lived as part of what grew in the land and sea and their activities enhanced its bountiful capacity." That sophistication and knowledge with which indigenous people consciously steered the evolution of biodiversity on their landscapes is reflected in the skill and brilliance of their art. An example is the Heiltsuk mechanical clam mask, carved c. 1900 (left) which has ended up in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution.

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Heiltsuk chiefs, Qatuwas Festival, Bella Bella, 1993.
Photo: John Isaac (United Nations)

According to the United Nations (UN), which has taken up their cause, indigenous peoples "have a historical continuity with pre invasion and pre colonial societies that developed on their territories. They consider themselves distinct from other sectors of society now prevailing in those territorities. Excluded from the decision making process, many indigenous people have been marginalized, exploited, assimilated and subjected to repression, torture and murder when they speak out in defence of their rights." Given the high profile of Canada in regards to Human Rights, it is disappointing that Canada was one of four British settler countries that failed to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on 13 September 2007. The Declaration confirms that the survival and wellbeing of indigenous peoples depends on their access to and control of lands and resources. This is a direct threat to the exploitation of Canada's natural resources by multinational corporations. The situation is especially volatile in BC, over 90 percent of the land and resources are contested by First Nations.



On 27 June 1993 two Heiltsuk chiefs in regalia were photographed at Bella Bella (left) welcoming traditional canoes ashore at the Qatuwas Festival, an international gathering of Northwest Coast First Nations. The festival was organized to mark the International Year of the World's Indigenous People, proclaimed by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly "to strengthen international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous communities in areas such as human rights, the environment, development, education and health." The photo of the Heiltsuk hereditary chiefs, together with a photo of the Heiltsuk canoe "Glwa" and a photo of a Heiltsuk girl holding a Glwa paddle (below) have become iconic images used on the UN website to represent the 2.5 million indigenous peoples of North America: Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples.

"Glwa" paddle, Qatuwas, 1993.
Photo: John Isaac (United Nations)

"Glwa," Heilsuk canoe, Qatuwas, 1993.
Photo: John Isaac (UN)

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Traditional Heiltsuk and Nuxalk canoe journey.
Photo: Harvey Humchitt


Traditional canoe journeys reenacted with chiefs in full regalia have become integral to revitalizing the rich cultural lives of the coastal First Nations. Standing chiefs in the photo (left) from the right are Nuxalk Chief Lawrence Pootlas, Heiltsuk Chief Harvey Humchitt, and Nuxalk Chief Cecil Moody. Canoes carved from huge ancient cedars were essential to the Heiltsuk way of life, providing vital transportation. Also the ancient cedars provide the material for many of their rich cultural traditions and art forms which are celebrated in ethnology museums around the world. In 2000 the Royal Ontario Museum held "Káxláya Gvi'ílás," curated by Heiltsuk Pam Brown, which presented some of the 284 Heiltsuk artifacts collected in 1901 by Methodist missionary R. W. Large.


Smithsonian exhibition, 2005 to 2008.
National Museum of the American Indian

Chief Harvey Humchitt was the Smithsonian's Heiltsuk community curator and on the exhibition website (above), he describes some of "The Laws of Our Ancestors" including the Dhuw'laxa Ceremony, Everyday Life, the Potlatch and the Tanis Ceremony. He explains how the Heiltsuk are oceangoing people who once relied on canoes as a means of transportation and describes how the carved objects represent the sea creatures essential to the Heiltsuk way of life like the staple halibut: Listening To Our Ancestors.

Heiltsuk photographer Doug Brown has presented an impressive series of beautiful images on Flickr: Coast Wild. These reveal the close relationship between the natural world and the rich cultural world of the Heiltsuk. Ancient indigenous traditions remain vital as is revealed by the photo of "Hemas Gukv" (mother of Doug Brown), seen in her splendid regalia during a potlatch at Bella Coola (right).


"Listening To Our Ancestors" (left) is a travelling exhibition of Northwest Coast art organized by the Museum of the American Indian (Smithsonian Institution) that is currently - July 2008 - at the George Gustav Heye Center in New York City. The exhibit presents over 400 objects from eleven FN communities and attempts to "connect them to their lands, customs and ancestors."

Hemas Gukv, Bella Coola potlatch, 2005.
Photo: Doug Brown

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Koeye old growth watershed, 2006.
Photo: Doug Brown

The Koeye River mouth is the site of an ancient indigenous village and, to pay tribute to this, a Heiltsuk bighouse was built here in 2000 (right). Koeye (pronounced Kway) is the home of 'Qaikas Nan' - the Great Grizzly Bear. The Heiltsuk conduct educational courses at Koeye River to teach youth about being good stewards. The Heiltsuk also have initiated a cultural tourism venture that is an outstanding example of indigenous and sustainable eco tourism: Koeye Lodge.


The Koeye River Watershed (left) is spectacular, with its never logged low elevation old growth forests, rich salmon runs, pristine fresh water lakes and wetlands river estuary. Until recently Koeye was part of Tree Farm License 39, an elaborate government give - away of indigenous resources to mega logging corporations. Road building and clearcutting began in the upper Koeye in 1990 but it was stopped before reaching the lower valley, one of the few such timber rich watersheds that First Nations and nature conservation organizations managed to save.

Heiltsuk Bighouse, Koeye.
Photo: The Hartfords


Traditional ceremony at Koeye.
Photo: Doug Brown

Another important Heiltsuk cultural celebration occurs every year at the Bella Bella Community School which hosts the Children's Cultural Celebration, a sort of "play potlatch" that provides an educational opportunity to learn about cultural traditions (right). Heiltsuk children are taught about their cultural birthright: "traditional Heiltsuk knowledge, values, history, and cultural achievements are essential for the social and economic development and survival of the Heiltsuk people" Heiltsuk Cultural Education Centre.


Traditional ceremonies are often held at the Koeye Bighouse (left). The re - vitalizing of First Nations stewardship is essential to protect the cultural, ecological and wildlife features of the Koeye River watershed. The Heiltsuk QQS (Eyes) Project Society supports the nature conservation ethic: "Protecting the people - Protecting the land." There is also a Heiltsuk Conservation Based Development Plan, a Heiltsuk Land Use Plan and a Heiltsuk Regional Tourism Initiative.

Children's Cultural Celebration, Bella Bella.
Photo: The Hartfords

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Grizzly Bear Housepost, c. 1880
Collected by G. H. Raley
Bella Bella, c. 1939
University of British Columbia

Heiltsuk Housepost
Collected by Stewart Culin
Bella Bella, c. 1911
Brooklyn Museum, New York

Another collector of Heiltsuk artifacts was the American Stewart Culin, curator at the Brooklyn Museum. Culin's extensive collecting trips resulted in over 9,000 objects of Native American culture, among them a Heiltsuk housepost, collected at Bella Bella in 1911 (above). The powerful carving can be seen on display in the museum today (right). The robbing of Heiltsuk cultural treasures by Large, Raley and Cullin was typical of the age and is being addressed by the indigenous repatriation movement which has been most successful in the returning of museum held remains of their ancestors. For a scholarly account of the Large Collection of Heiltsuk art in the Royal Ontario Museum, see Martha Black's "Bella Bella: A Season of Heiltsuk Art" (1997).


During his journeys to First Nations coastal communities, Methodist minister G. H. Raley assembled a large ethnographic collection. Over 600 objects ended up at the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology, including the striking Grizzly Bear Housepost (far left), acquired in 1930 but likely carved c. 1880.

Heiltsuk housepost collected by S. Culin, 1911.
Brooklyn Museum, New York State


The Methodist missionary - collector R. W. Large is remembered in Bella Bella - if only because the hospital is named after him. The R. W. Large Memorial Hospital serves several First Nations communities and it provided the only surgical and maternity services on BC's "Inside Passage" between Vancouver Island and Prince Rupert until a decade ago when the BC government callously ended these services to save expenses. At the same time as such essential health services are cut back, the indigenous communities see how their resources are massively disappearing along with the huge profits, cashed in by the multinational corporations.

At the same time that Heiltsuk art is celebrated in museums, ancient cedars and culturally modified trees continue to be clearcut logged despite being "one of the few remaining windows on a rich cultural heritage and ancient historical past" (Heiltsuk Tribal Council, 1984). Ancient cedars are essential to the Heiltsuk carving traditions. Heiltsuk artist Kvamaxalas (Stanley George) is a prolific carver (right). (The 86 year old artist can be seen in the background on the right.) Another fine example of his work is the pole he carved as a gift for the Elder's Building in Bella Bella (below).


Heiltsuk carver Kvamaxalas, 2006.
Photo: Doug Brown

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Log barge passing Bella Bella, 2006.
Photo: Ian McAllister


The sinister spectacle of huge industrial log barges passing by Bella Bella (left) is a reminder of the horrific rate of biodiversity destruction. So strong is the pungent sap of the ancient cedars that such barges can be smelled onshore, many kilometers away. Heiltsuk Territory is riddled with timber licenses held by some of the world's most voracious logging corporations. Under the guise of "collaboration" they relentlessly continue the old growth deforestation that has already caused the extermination of the salmon fisheries in California, Oregon and Washington. To stop this process of vagrant degradation, the lands and waters must be returned to their rightful indigenous owners and economic support must be forthcoming to the FNs and local communities to help them preserve the ancient and irreplaceable forests.

    Glditas Daqvu  
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Copyright: All Rights Reserved. Researched, written, compiled, formatted, hyperlinked and encoded by Dr. Karen Wonders. Images and intellectual property rights reside with the credited owner. Commercial transmission and/or reproduction requires written permission. Use for educational and research purposes requires proper citation.