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.
All over BC a resurgence in First Nations cultural expressions has been occurring. The Heiltsuk are part of this cultural and political rise, seeing an increase in artists, carvers, singing, and efforts to strengthen and restore the language. Arts that were in danger of being lost are being taught again.
The 1975 National Film Board film by Barbara Greene titled “Bella Bella” records a time of rapid change, an interesting historical vignette of the community.
The Heiltsuk have played a key role in the resurgence of the ocean going canoe culture along the Pacific Northwest Coast when they first carved a canoe and paddled from Bella Bella to Vancouver for Expo 86, in 1986 and in 1989 participated in the “Paddle to Seattle” , and at this event invited other tribes to travel to Bella Bella and hosted the 1993 Qatuwas Festival. The resurgence of building traditional ocean going canoes is one of a number of cultural and ceremonial practices and technologies that have regained strength among BC First Nations. The canoe revival, also called Tribal Canoe Journeys involve many communities and Nations.
In 1993 the Heiltsuk hosted a gathering of ocean-going canoes, known as ‘Qatuwas. First Nations from as far away as Washington State and all along the BC Coast paddled to Bella Bella. This gathering was a major event and part of a wider movement among First Nations to revive and strengthen the traditions of ocean-going ‘dugout’ canoes. The 1993 event more than doubled the population of the community for the ten days it ran.
The popular exhibit Kaxlaya Gvi’ilas was a partnership between the Heiltsuk, the Museum of Anthropology (UBC) curator Pam Brown (Heiltsuk scholar), the Royal Ontario Museum, and Martha Black (art historian) author of Bella Bella: A Season of Heiltsuk Art. A collaborative exhibit, it contained a combination of historical pieces from the Royal Ontario Museum’s R.W. Large Collection and contemporary artwork from the Heiltsuk village of Waglisla (Bella Bella). The exhibit traveled after its initial showing in the Royal Ontario Museum, to Vancouver (MOA 2002), Montreal (McCord Museum MGill) and Owen Sound Ontario.
The Heiltsuk have strongly opposed oil and gas development, and the transportation of oil through Heiltsuk territory. The proposed Northern Gateway pipeline was the subject of considerable opposition from the Heiltsuk. In April 2012 the Joint-Review Panel assessing the proposed pipeline cancelled part of the hearings scheduled for Bella Bella.
The Heiltsuk travelled to Massett, Haida Gwaii for a renewal of a peace treaty on September 20, 2014 that dates to the end of the Heiltsuk-Haida wars of the 19th Century. In 2015 the treaty was finalized and ratified in Bella Bella at a potlatch where the Haida chiefs were also in attendance.
A second canoe gathering occurred in July 2014 – also known as ‘Qatuwas – and featured more canoes (close to 60) than the original festival in 1993. Both events (1993 and 2014 ‘Qatuwas Festivals) featured ocean-going canoes from many other First Nations, cultural sharing including dancing, singing,sharing stories, and of course food.
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