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 pattern of Heiltsuk resource use has changed somewhat in the past two hundred years, but has been remarkably stable given the pressures and changes that have been experienced by the Heiltsuk people. The Heiltsuk year is divided into two primary parts, the winter ceremonial season and the harvest season. These divisions are general; some harvest may occur during the winter and the odd ceremony may be required during the harvest season, but the distinction is quite clear.”

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 is 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.

Heiltsuk, Ladle with Skull, 19th century, Brooklyn Museum

Heiltsuk culture has been and is known for its ceremonial, military, and artistic skills. The Heiltsuk were early participants in the revival of the ocean-going cedar canoes during the 1980s, attending Expo ’86, participating in the 1989 Paddle to Seattle. The Heiltsuk canoe “Gilwa” has made many trips since being carved in the 1980s.

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 later, most vociferously 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 (and more broadly for other First Nations on what anthropologists label the Northwest Coast) social and political organization, and as the most obvious expression of non-Christian beliefs. The British Imperial philosophy of the time included a perceived superiority of British culture and a policy converting other cultures to Christianity, among other things.

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

Source From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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