The Heiltsuk people, formerly known as the Bella Bella Indians, have lived in their lands; on what has come to be called British Columbia, centered on the island communities of Bella Bella and Klemtu, since time immemorial.

Ancestors of the Heiltsuk have been on the Central Coast region of British Columbia since at least 7190 BCE.

Their first contact with Europeans was most likely in 1793, and the name “Bella Bella” dates back to 1834.

As with many other indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast they were subject to drastic population loss as a result of introduced diseases, particularly smallpox and heightened military conflicts with neighbouring peoples during the fur trade era.

The population collapse caused the Heiltsuk to coalesce into fewer communities, and reduced the population to just under 225 by 1919. However, after the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1919, they began to rebound, and the population today is about 2,500.

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.

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.

The Heiltsuk speak Hailhzaqvla, the Heiltsuk language. Hailhzaqvla is considered a separate language but is part of what linguists call the Wakashan language family.

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

Heiltsuk Culture

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

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 art – 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 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.

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.

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 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 social and political organization, and as the most obvious expression of non-Christian beliefs.

Though the Potlatch system did not die out entirely among the Heiltsuk, it was forced underground.

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.

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.

Heiltsuk Language

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.

The Heiltsuk were also users of the Chinook Jargon, particularly during the fur trade period. Not a full language, the jargon allowed communications across the many linguistic barriers, both among First Nations and explorers.