Heiltsuk’s Historic Big House Opening is a Powerful Testament of Sovereignty and Resilience

For generations Indigenous governance was carried out carefully amid the federal ban of governance practices. Today, the voices of Heiltsuk people are ringing out loud and clear across the land and water.

At the heart of Waglisla (known as Bella Bella), the mural-festooned cedar Big House stands as a triumphant marker of Heiltsuk pride.

Inside, four great totems stand at the cardinal points. Whole ancient cedar trees hold up the roof.

As the dancers and drummers enmesh into sound and motion, viewers rise to their feet and all through the great hall, people sway in unison. Tears, chills, and enormous pride ripple through the hall.

A row of Hemas — hereditary leaders — wear crowns of intricately carved copper and abalone, resting on hair entwined with lengths of ermine. As carriers of the nuy’em giwas — origin stores — the descendants of the heroes in the stories being enacted in song and dance are sitting right here, today.

Heiltsuk elders who sit here today are a living bridge through which this rich culture travelled, in the dark days when the potlatch itself was outlawed. Their parents and grandparents smuggled stories past the agents of colonialism, sometimes burying precious masks and hiding ‘artifacts’ lest they be confiscated — later to appear in museum collections around the world.

Imagine how it feels to see their children and grandchildren standing in the firelight, embodying the indomitable Heiltsuk spirit that could never be extinguished.

Opening the Big House is just one way in which the Heiltsuk Nation are leading a renaissance in which ways of knowing that sustained balanced relationships between human communities and ecosystems are being revitalized.

Those relationships have been sorely tested. Days after the community, backed by thousands of supporters under the Pull Together banner, stopped the Enbridge project in its tracks, they watched helplessly as the Nathan E. Stewart sank, spilling diesel and engine oils into one of the Nation’s most precious fishing grounds.

As the community struggled from the fallout of a mismanaged spill response, they turned to the courts again. With support from RAVEN, the Heiltsuk’s court case not only demands compensation for the damage from the Nathan E. Stewart disaster, it also breaks new legal ground in asserting Aboriginal title to the seabed and foreshore in the spill area — a legal precedent that would be a gamechanger for all coastal communities.

The Big House is a jubilant milestone in the story of Heiltsuk Nation. To celebrate with Heiltsuk and to support their ongoing legal assertion of aboriginal title, RAVEN aims to muster $10k in donations this week. Can you donate, or share this message with friends + family who care about the health of coastal ecosystems and communities?

In Heiltsuk culture — where birds shake off their wings to stand tall, mice speak with human voices, and killer whales have the faces of men — the masks, the intricate patterns on blanket cloaks, the designs appliquéd in felt to dancing robes are more than mere decoration.

To sit in the Big House is to bear witness to ancient stories coming to life: stories which have held a people in balance with nature since time immemorial.

The respect for the interconnectedness of all of life is enacted, generation after generation, first in the Big House and then, as a way of life.

Introducing this morning’s program, cultural advisor William Housty explains,

This dance has been practiced by our ancestors and our chiefs forever. It tells of a time when the world was turned upside down, when lots of tough things happened. But those times are always followed by something good: the resurrection of life.

Thank you for witnessing, and supporting, the resilience of Heiltsuk Nation. Please join RAVEN in donating, fundraising and organizing film screenings so the Nation can have access to justice — and so that precious community development funds don’t have to be spent on legal costs but can instead go towards raising the next generation of proud Heiltsuk leaders.

As they say in Waglisla, “Wálas ǧiáxsix̌a” — with gratitude.

Andrea, Ana, Maia, Susan + the RAVEN team

Ps. The Nathan E. Stewart case is one piece to a multifaceted strategy to revitalize Indigenous legal frameworks. Support for the case breaks ground not only for Heiltsuk but for all Nations working to reassert their sovereignty and governance authority. Donate now.

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