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Historical Notes on the Bella Bella Heiltsuk
©1977/1997 Heiltsuk Cultural Education Centre
(Left Image - Wolf by Shirl Hall)

The present-day Heiltsuk (formerly the Bella Bella) Band of Indians are the main descendents of Heiltsuk-speaking peoples who inhabited an area of approximately 6000 sq. miles in the central coastal region of what is today known as British Columbia. Heiltsuk traditional territory extends from the southern tip of Calvert Island, up Dean and Burke Channels as far as Kimsquit and the head of Dean Inlet to the northeast, and up the Mathieson and Finlayson Channels to the north. It includes Roscoe, Cousins and Spiller Inlets, and Ellerslie Lake, and the outer coast regions of Milbanke Sound, Queens Sound, and the Goose Island Group and Calvert Island.

The oldest established arhaeological date in this region is 7190 B.C. from a carbon-14 sample taken from Namu. Archaeological remains at Namu reveal that except for a relatively brief break in the strata, people have been living there continuously for the past 9700 years. Oral tradititions of the present-day Heiltsuk maintain that the first generation of their ancestors were "set-down" by the Maker in various places within Heiltsuk territory and were living here before the time of a great flood.

There is considerable archaeological evidence that it was during the period from 1000 B.C. on, that many of the cultural features present when the first immigrants and explorers came were developed. Aspects of material culture include plank houses, ceremonial art, canoes, cedar bark technology, spinning, many different kinda of wood-working tools, the bow and arrow, and a considerable variety of wood and fibre artifacts.

Oral traditions, archaeological and ethnographic evidence establish that, by the time of contact with Europeans, central coast peoples were living in village groups distributed throughout this area. The pattern of living that had developed over the centuries was characterized by people moving from place to place throughout the year, harvesting a variety of sea and land resources that were seasonal in different places at different times of the year. During the winter months, people would congregate in relatively large villages, then during the spring, summer, and fall, disperse in smaller groups to different camps and food- harvesting areas. Salmon was a distinct, although by no means the only, staple food resource in this area. In fact, utilisation of an extensive and diverse resource base is a characterisic of both ancient and contemporary human history in the central coast.

At the time of contact, there were five main groups of Heiltsuk-speaking peoples who subsequently amalgamated to form the Heiltsuk (formerly Bella Bella) Band of Indians:

(lit. "outside people", referring to people living outside of the inlets toward and including the outer coasts)
("inside people" living up the inlets)
("People of 'Yisda")
("people of Qvüqvai" or "calm water people"
("down-river" or "north")

In 1834, the total population of these groups was estimated to be around 1600. While some of the fith Heiltsuk-speaking group, the 'Xixis, also joined with the Bella Bella, the majority, together with some of the Qvuqvayaitxv, joined together with their immediate neighbours the Kitasoo Tsimshian at the village of Klemtu to form the Klemtu or Kitasoo Band.

Contrary to persisting popular notions that coastal peoples roamed at random over the unmarked coast and hinterlands living from hand to mouth in perpetual awe of nature, 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.

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. The present-day culture and challenges facing the Heiltsuk are a combonation of over 9000 years of cultural development and the rapid changes brought about over the past two centuries.

The most significant and far-reaching changes had occured by the turn of this century, and a brief chronology of events and selected highlights are presented below.

In 1793, Captain George Vancouver explored Heiltsuk waters for the first time. American fur traders were already in the area and were quickly joined by British fur traders. In 1833, Hudson's Bay Company built a fur trading post, Fort McLoughlin, on Campbell Island, in order to intercept American fur trade competition on the coast. The Fort was located at McLoughlin Bay, or Old Town as the site is now known, about a mile and one-half south of the present village of Waglisla. In 1843, the Fort was abandoned. Sometime around 1850, Hudson's Bay Company re-established a trading post on the site of the former Fort. In 1862 the great smallpox epidemic that originated in Victoria spread up the coast and decimated whole villages of Heiltsuk peoples. In 1867, although the impact was not to be felt locally for a couple of decades, the British North America Act created the Federal Government of Canada and this government was given the responsibility for "Indians, and lands reserved for Indians" (Sec. 91, subsection 24). The first Indian Act was written in 1870.

By 1870, an increasing number of Heiltsuk village groups were amalgamating by settling together in Old Town. In 1881, Reserve Commisioner O'Reilly arrived and apportioned 13 reserves to the "Bella Bella Indians" and 6 to the nearby "Kokyet Tribe" (Qvuqvayaitxv). These reserves were surveyed in 1888. (3 additional reserves were alloted in 1916 and surveyed in 1926.) By 1889, the last of the Heitsuk villages in the area (Qvuqvai) had relocated, some to Old Town and the remaining to Klemtu. By then the combined ravages of smallpox and other diseases had reduced the resident population at Old Town to 250.

Although by the late 1800's, the Bella Bella Heiltsuk were permanently established at Old Town, they still maintained traditional living patterns, dispersing at different times of the year to harvest seasonal resources and relocating at customary traditional hunting and fishing camps. (Missionary reports at the time complain that most of the village was away for most of the year). As immigrants began to assume control over the harvest of indigenous resources, they relied on Heiltsuk knowledge, skill and expertise in harvesting these resources. Heiltsuk easily participated in so-called "commercial" fishing, logging, and for a while, fur-sealing enterprises into their yearly cycle. Thus, for example, in the 1880's the entire village would move out Goose Island in the spring to hunt fur seal, then from there to Rivers Inlet to work for the canneries. At the turn of the century, many people were self- or otherwise employed for part of the year as hand loggers. People who once build canoes for their own use, trade, or sale, were now making gas boats.

During the late 1890's and early 1900's the entire village relocated from Old Town to the present village site of Waglisla. Within the first two decades of this century, a new hospital and church were constructed with the aid of community contributions and free labour. By 1903 the community had purchased its own sawmill with which lumber for new houses and the community boardwalk was cut. In 1902, the missionary reported that: "Already these Indians had a measure of self-government [of a kind similar to the missionary - the Heiltsuk certainly had self-government before, ed.]. The chiefs were organized into a council which was responsible for maintaining law and order in the community. They were empowered to levy and collect fines for violations of the law and these moneys were kept in a fund for community projects. The first use of the funds was the building of a wharf at the new town." (R.G. Large, Drums and Scalpel., Mitchell Press Ltd., p.18). In 1905, DIA oficials reported that the Bella Bella people "...are making good progress, have a good wharf on the reserve at which all the steamers desiring to do so can berth, own a steam saw-mill, for which they paid some $3000 cash, and are deserving of praise for their energy and perseverance in carrying out anything they undertake" (DIA Annual Reports for 1904, p.270)

However, it was not long before many of the general economic problems that have persisted through this century were identified, although there has always been more than one point of view as to exactly what these problems and their solutions were.

DR. R.W. Large, medical missionary at Bella Bella for many years, reported to the home mission in Toronto: "our aim on this coast should be to get the Indians ready for moving away from the reserves in the future, and mingling with the whites. Hunting, hand-logging and fur-sealing will fail them; their land is useless, so they will be forced to do it" (Missionary Society Annual Reports 1905-06, p.1xiii.)

In August of 1913, all the leadders of this community took the occaision of the McKenna-McBride Reserve Commision hearings at Bella Bella to present their assessment of their current situation and future needs: mainly that they had a reserve at the mouth of every creek and stream in the vicinity; and that they were concerned about the economic future of their children as the land and traditional fishing and hunting rights were being taken away and given to others for their own use and profit.

We think that the money which has been recieved for all these fishing licenses in the past should have been (and should be) paid over to us, as all the fishing priveleges 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 (Bob Anderson in Evidence Commision on Indian Affairs, 1913-14. p.58)

Much of the testimony is summed up in the following statement which shows that the people of Bella Bella identified the same problems as did outsiders - land scarcely fit for cultivation, increasingly restricted participation in commercial fishing and logging industries, questionable economic future for generations to come - but considered a different solution from that of moving away and assimilating with the immigrants.

We have a reserve but there is none of it fit for cultivation. We are satisfied with the reserve for living purposes, but we would like to have the free use of the surrounding land for the purposes of logging and fishing and to have all the hunting priveleges on it. We are afraid that later on we will have no way to make any money, and we would like to have these villages reserved to us now. Our children are growing up now and they will have no way to make their living. That is what is bothering us at the present time. If the Government bouth this place from us years ago we have not heard anything about it and we would like to know something about it. (Charles Windsor in Evidence Commision on Indian Affairs, ibid. pp.67-8)

To this the Chairman of the Commision replied: "All we know is that there is a quantaty of land throughout the Province marked and set aside as Indian Reserves, and it is with these Reserves only, that we are dealing" (ibid. p. 68)

The Chairman's response is indicitave of the main concern of the joint federal-provincial Reserve Commission, namely to settle disputes between the Federal Government (who had jurisdiction over Crown lands and Indian Reserve lands in the province of B.C.) and the Provincial government (who owned the rest of the land) over the size and extent of Indian reserves in B.C.

The response of the Chairman is also all to characteristic of the general reaction of government and government agents to concerns voiced by indigenous peoples over the changing status of their traditional rights and livelihood. New laws and regulations and economic competition have been assumed by the government and outside advisors to be accomplished, irreversible facts. This is the political and economic environment to which the Bella Bella people have had to adjust during this century .

Selected References

Annual Reports of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Church of Canada. 1880-1906.

Bella Bella Stories, Storie and Gould, eds., Indian Advisory Committee ofB.C., 1973.

Department of Indian Affairs, Annual Reports, 1971

Duff, The Indian History of B.C. Vol. 1: The Impact of The White Man. Anthropology in B.C. Memoir no.5, 1964, Provincial Museum of British Columbia.

Evidence Commission on Indian Affairs 1913-1914, Bella Bella Tribe, pp. 57-78, B.C. Provincial Library .

Hobler, Philip, "Prehistory of the Central Coast of British Columbia" Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7, "Northwest Coast." Wayne Suttles edition editor, 1990.

Large, R.G., Drums and Scalpel, Mitchell Press Ltd., 1968.

Olson, R. L., "Notes on the Bella Bella Kwakiutl," Anthropological Records, University of California Press, 1955.

Tolmie, W. F., Physician and Fur Trader. Mitchell Press Ltd., 1963.

Walbran, Capt. J., British Columbia Coast Names. the Library Press, L&L (orig. pub. 1909).

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The Heiltsuk Cultural Education Centre
P.O. Box 880
Bella Bella, British Columbia V0T 1Z0
Tel (250) 957-2626, Fax (250) 957-2780