Heiltsuk Contact & the Fur Trade Period

Their first contact with Europeans was most likely in 1793, and the name “Bella Bella” dates back to 1834. They generally refer to themselves as Heiltsuk. As with many other indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast they were subject to drastic population loss as a result of introduced diseases and heightened military conflicts with neighbouring peoples during the fur trade era.

As the fur trade began they also became known as skilled traders. 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.
“A significant feature of Bella Bella society was the development of a cadre of highly skilled artisans noted for their construction and decoration of bentwood boxes, chests, canoes, and horn spoons and ladles. After White contact the skills of these artisans were turned to the market demand for canoes and boxes.”

The Heiltsuk experienced significant population loss due to introduced diseases, and conflict. A war between the Heiltsuk and Haida involved reciprocal attacks, ending in 1852 with an agreement that has been characterized as a peace treaty.

Founding of ‘Bella Bella’ at McLoughlin Bay

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.

“For the period before 1897 the name Bella Bella refers only to ‘Qelc, or to Old Bella Bella (Old Town), at McLoughlin Bay.”


Heiltsuk (Bella Bella) (Native American). House Post, from a Set of Four, 19th century. Cedar wood, Brooklyn Museum

Move from Old Bella Bella to new Bella Bella

The Heiltsuk community at Old Bella Bella (located at McLoughlin Bay) decided to relocate the community to the site of the present-day village of Bella Bella, BC (aka Waglisla). By 1903 the Heiltsuk had founded and largely moved into the current village of Bella Bella.

Like other First Nations on the coast, the Heiltsuk were subject to repeated epidemics, primarily of smallpox, that killed the majority of the population. This population collapse caused the Heiltsuk to coalesce into fewer communities, and reduced the population to just under 225 by 1919. Like other First Nations, the expected demise of the Heiltsuk did not occur. Instead, the population rebounded following the 1919 Spanish Flu epidemic and is now well over 2,500.

When the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission visited Bella Bella in 1913, they were told:

“We are the natives of this Country and we want all the land we can get. We feel that we own the whole of this Country, every bit of it, and ought to have something to say about it. The Government have not bought any land from us so far as we know and we are simply lending this land to the Government. We own it all. We will never change our minds in that respect, and after we are dead our children will still hold on to the same ideas. It does not matter how long the Government take to determine this question, we will remain the same in our ideas about this matter… We consider that the Government is stealing that land from us, and we also understand that it is unlawful for the Government to take this land.” ~ Bob Anderson

The Heiltsuk have continuously maintained they have the right to self-determination and continue to hold title to the Territory. Accordingly, many members have asserted rights. From this situation arose recognition by the Supreme Court of Canada (in R. v. Gladstone) of a Heiltsuk commercial Aboriginal right to herring. This was a first for Canada.

The Heiltsuk have always based their food gathering significantly on the sea. The 1997 Gladstone decision (R. v. Gladstone) recognized a commercial Aboriginal right to herring – particularly herring eggs – based on the pre-contact history of harvest and trade. The Heiltsuk and Canada have been in dispute over implementation of the Gladstone decision and related management issues.

This dispute boiled over during the 2015 herring season with the Heiltsuk occupying a DFO office for four days. The dispute was sparked when DFO allowed a herring seine fishery that the Heiltsuk had opposed, citing continuing conservation concerns and doubts regarding DFO’s predictive model. The crisis ended when the herring gillnet fleet departed the area without fishing.

Source From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.