It is around 14:00 hrs Canadian Pacific time. I’ve just got of the plane in a place called Bella Bella home of the Heiltsuk in British Columbia after travelling for 40 hours. On the plane was a woman and her teenage son, her bag had on a great first nation design with the words Heiltsuk honouring our women. I gather from her conversation she is going to a funeral.
The airport is tiny and it’s really really raining. I’m met by Harvey Humchitt who is one of four chiefs of the Heiltsuk and his wife Brenda. I had met Harvey at a conference in Austria aiming to increase the sharing world wide of cultural objects. Harvey has a good-sized boat and Brenda is the principal of the school.
There are around 1400 people live in Bella, around 1300 are first nation. Brenda has nipped out of school to pick me up there is to be a sponsored run that every school in Canada takes part in raising money for cancer but she’s going to postpone it, the weather is that bad.
I’m told I’m going straight onto Harvey’s boat, a prominent member of the community has died, Harvey is taking the family across to an Island out at sea called Grave Island.
First stop bread, beef and salad in case anyone wants to eat, I’m struck by the folk shopping, all have a mix of Canadian flag and or Heiltsuk design on their clothing. The girl stacking the shelves has a fleece on with the words Heiltsuk proud of who we are. This place is no tourist trap.
Harvey knocks me up a proper doorstop sandwich and a coffee you could chew on. The gravediggers go on ahead in a 3-man boat as we set off. I meet the family that want to travel. We have 7 people on board and the boat is full. The weather is really bad; Harvey has real trouble just getting the boat from the pier as the wind keeps pushing him back.
We set off with the remains of Deanna Muriel Lawson. Deanna who was not of first nation heritage had come to Bella Bella as a young nurse and had a massive impact on that community. She married Chester Lawson a high school teacher. Her Eulogy written by Pauline Waterfall talks of her roots. This is a constant in Bella Bella everyone talks about their roots. ‘’Deanna’s roots included Danish roots through her mother and English ties to Devon through her father. She was proud of this heritage, while embracing and accepting the Heiltsuk roots into which she was adopted and married. She was always respectful and accepting of her husbands culture and ways, knowing that this added to the richness of their children’s multicultural inheritance.’ Harvey explained later how Deanna had been adopted by a family that means wolf as a mark of respect. Being adopted was real and they became a normal member of that family.
I talk on the boat to the lady from the plane, she’s called Shannon. She tells me how she has not been back to Bella Bella for 17 years as she now lives in Vancouver. She tells me her son comes up to canoe camps where they canoe along the coast stopping and hearing stories’ it’s a great way to keep him connected to who he is.’
There is a big political storm in the region; I’d read about it in the paper on the plane. In a more remote reservation where around 1000 first nation folk live further up the coast there was only limited medical support for 3 days. The regional authority in response to the swine flu epidemic had sent a planeload of body bags rather than further medical support. This has of course sparked real anger and drives the conversation a while as we head towards Grave Island. Harvey points out the eagle’s nests in the trees on the Island as we approach. Deanna is to be buried along side grand parents from her adopted family, another great mark of respect.
A young family member had been taken off timetable to make the cross that would mark the grave in the schools design and technology department.
I ask Harvey about the politics. Its much better now, we do have a voice and in law we must be consulted. He then tells me though that the huge logging firm had wanted to flatten part of the forest that was of great cultural value to The Heiltsuk. They were consulted with and it ended up with the government commissionaire crying in Harvey’s house saying there was nothing he could do the loggers had been formally given permission to log. The loggers never came however and it had remained a mystery until Harvey was invited to a big environmentalist conference. It would seem Harvey who had continued as expected to fight the loggers wrote to the buyers of the wood in Europe. He set out the cultural importance of the forest to his community in his letter and it was the buyers who stopped the logging! Harvey’s tactics celebrated at the conference.
That evening it is Deanna’s settlement feast. The sports hall is booked and full of folk. Everyone cooks and contributes money. The money is then dished out by Deanes family to pay for all kinds of expenses from grave diggers to family that have travelled but most goes to the community through donations to school and to the cancer charities. There is a huge banner with designs representing eagles and whales with the red ribbon representing the fight against cancer.
Chester, Deanna’s husband talks about their life and invites various family members to come and talk about their memories. I’m sat on the table with the chiefs and feel privileged to be at the feast. Chester then invites me to speak and explain why I’m here a real unexpected honour.
One of the chiefs finishes off the evening talking about how proud he is of his people and how politics are now redundant and it is through community that people are most powerful. That this sense of community and the ways of expressing this sense of community are what has been handed down from their ancestors. He talks a lot about values and connects them to their shared sense of who they are. Harvey invites him to come fishing with us tomorrow; I’m hoping he can come.
Finally, there is an announcement that there is a cougar in the village, this is unheard of they normally stay in the forest; there is plenty to eat and no reason for them to come into the village. At another settlement children have been attacked with one killed. With a warning to keep children safe the feast is ended and we all pour out of the sports hall and go home. I’ve been in Bella Bella for 7 hours now and I now know why I’ve come.