Thank you Aly for proofreading and editing for content! W̓uálas ǧiáxsix̌a!
Recently, I went up north in a small course offered at UBC to work with the Heiltsuk Nation in an effort to help revitalize their language. There was a technological aspect to the class, and we assisted in digitizing archival documents and recording audio with Elders to help ease language learners with more tools and simplify access to pre-existing technologies.
It was a fulfilling, educational, and fun week with friends, old and new.
However in writing this article, I must preface that I am being careful. I was visiting a First Nations community and now am writing about my experiences there. Bella Bella is not a tourist destination unless you are maybe a sport fisherman and even that market is controversial. The dynamics regarding First Nations communities and outsiders are complex, and the economic disparities and imbalances that come out of active colonization are ever present today.
It was by no means an easy “trip” emotionally and interpersonally. I was there to work and met with community members who voiced their truths and concerns regarding the future of their language, which is extremely powerful to witness. Residential schooling sought to take away so many intangible and meaningful traditions and ways of life from the Indigenous peoples that exist in what is today Canada. Part of myself hesitates to even write about my time there.
Nevertheless in writing this article, I specifically hope to facilitate understanding for those who are farther removed from remote communities and express what I can as an outsider of what Bella Bella is like. Throughout writing this post, I have asked myself how can I showcase the beauty that I saw in Bella Bella truthfully and more morally, how can one engage in respect with those who have resided on some shores for longer than one can conceivably fathom?
The latter I think many are pondering nowadays or at least should … looking at you Canada … [squints]
While Canada will soon celebrate its 150th anniversary, the Heiltsuk have been there for easily over 13,000 years, according to a recent study.
Nestled in the central coast of the Pacific Northwest on Campbell Island, Bella Bella or Waglisla, is the main Heiltsuk community and also houses the nation’s central government. Traditionally, Heiltsuk/ Haíɫzaqv is spoken here, which is a Wakashan language related to Kwak’wala and Haisla. It is written with a unique orthography with a great new unicode keyboard, which allows users to even tweet in the language. I helped install many a keyboard while up north — let’s just say I am now a professional installer and I highly recommend it if you want to type awesome sounds like λ, ƛ, and x̌.
Accessible by plane, the airport is small, but charming, with a great coffee bar (I kid you not) and helpful customer service. Taxis from the airport are available into town, which is only a short ways away.
Located on the coast, Bella Bella is home to not just the Heiltsuk people but eagles, ravens, and dogs as well. The eagles and ravens are much larger than one might expect. They are happily fed scraps, and the normal abundance of fish does not hurt either. Bears are also present, but not generally an issue. If there are bears in the area and you are there, make a lot of noise and travel in groups — best of luck to you!
Whales also reside in the waters surrounding the area. If you are lucky, you might see some Humpbacks, Orcas, and porpoises during the right season!
Of the multiple islands around Bella Bella, Kvai might be the prettiest. After an arson incident, the lodge there was rebuilt as a set of almost ‘glamping’ (glamour + camping) little lodges that are rented out to visitors. A 2.5 hour ride away, the island additionally houses a local summer camp and is of cultural significance to the Heiltsuk as result of a long history with detailed stories stemming from this place. I will keep it at that; if you are lucky enough to go to Kvai, you should do your own wandering (just watch out for grizzlies).
One fraction of the UBC team (including myself) stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast called Coho Nation. Located close to the airport, it is a luxurious upper floor of the host’s home with full kitchen and balcony. The host, Howard, is also an amazing chef, so expect delicious breakfasts in the morning. I slept on the couch because there are only three rooms, but it still was definitely the comfiest/ tastiest course I have ever taken!
Another lodging option is Shearwater. A fishing resort and lodge, it is host to many burly fishermen who at times bypass Bella Bella entirely and helicopter to the island destination without even visiting the town. Let’s just say … the reviews are mixed from the locals (and yours truly). There is a restaurant there (one of the two in the vicinity), and service is a little rude and slow. The drinks are pretty cheap though … I speak from experience!
Nevertheless, I personally recommend CoHo. Shearwater has weird vibes and is not locally owned. If you are coming to Heiltsuk territory, actually go to something run by someone who is Heiltsuk. Plus, if you are inclined and must venture across to the marina, there is a lovely sea taxi that you can take for an evening. This sea taxi also delivers pizza to the docks in Bella Bella with an additional charge, so you can still enjoy Shearwater food without the hassle of speaking to anyone there!
That being said, produce and food are generally expensive. It is hard to get fresh food to such remote locations, so some produce like peppers cost much more than they would in your local Safeway. For visitors, it is an inconvenience, but for residents, it is a reality. Food security is a real issue for many First Nations communities as is health.
While in Bella Bella, definitely head to the Band store for some grub to make at home — the proceeds go back into the community and you will get to meet some locals at check out. Everyone is very friendly; do not be surprised if you get a daily wave here and there from passersby.
If you do visit Heiltsuk territory, you would be missing out if you did not sample any of the amazing local seafood. Kelp, seaweed, herring roe, multiple varieties of salmon, and crab are staples in the area. Boating and fishing are part of the lifestyle here, which is why there has been recent conflict with pipelines and fisheries. How can you negotiate away a lifestyle? A lifestyle that has been cultivated for thousands of years?
The recent oil spill was devastating to the region and the Heiltsuk, and such disasters cannot be commonplace. Luckily, 80 percent of the Great Bear Rainforest is now protected, but the 20 percent left is still at risk of development, which could lead to more spills. It is not just clam beds, but livelihoods and sustenance and culture at stake.
These issues are not headlines you see on the news, but real concerns for the communities they affect. If one comes up to Heiltsuk territory, I recommend taking a charter boat (preferably with Vern if one can get him) to explore the region. See the environment and hear the stories from the people. With permission, visit the islands where their ancestors have been. Eliminate the distance, so to speak, between you and the Heiltsuk.
In some way, I see this elimination of distance as an important step toward reconciliation.
Once again, Bella Bella is not a tourist hotspot. If one does visit, remember to exercise some respect. I came as a student and friend, not a tourist, and I do not think I ever want to go to a community like this explicitly as one. It is a reserve, not resort. But, if you have friends there or make those connections, see if you can learn to gut a fish, have a drink and laugh off a long days work, and pet as many dogs as possible — be happy you are in Heiltsuk territory and thankful that the residents have taken such great care of it for centuries. As an outsider there for a week or maybe even less, I think that is the best you can do in such a short time.
We are back in Vancouver and getting back to work. I am currently working two jobs, which is going better than I though. The daily grind has made blogging a little more difficult lately. However, we are going to be exploring some Vancouver breweries soon, and Pride is coming up. A trip to Williams Lake is also on the horizon to visit an friend/ Elder up there too. Get ready; summer isn’t over yet! Travel safe and often!
Happy 13,000+ and to many more to come as well. W̓uálas ǧiáxsix̌a!