During the week of the Bella Bella Joint Review Panel (JRP) I unknowingly walked in on a hyperbolic demonstration of Heiltsuk culture and pride. I was initially there to spend time with the students of the Bella Bella Community School who are building their very own hand made cedar stand up paddleboards to film and document the process as part of my new film project "STAND". Between woodshop classes though, I had the opportunity to sit in on the JRP presentations and as a consequence learn more about Heiltsuk culture and oral tradition than I bargained for.
The JRP hearing was convened to collect “oral evidence, which is typically traditional—Aboriginal traditional knowledge, information that can’t be communicated to the Panel in writing.”1 What ensued was two and a half days of the Heiltsuk people sharing their experience and connection to the land and ocean. Supernatural stories informed by the geography of the Heiltsuk traditional territory that are passed down from one generation to another where also made public. At it's most basic level, and shamefully so, it required the Heiltsuk in their own home to articulate and justify the value of their traditional territory to their culture.
The hearings began with controversy when the panel cancelled the first day due to security concerns and this was widely publicized in the mainstream media. It was an impressive display as the panel descended the airplane steps to be confronted by elders dressed in traditional regalia, singing and drumming, and the road lined with children vocally protesting the the Northern Gateway project. What prompted me to write this, however, was the notion that the three members of the panel are perhaps some of the luckiest people in Canada.
Why you might ask? The coastal First Nations of BC have archeological evidence of occupying this region that dates back 10,000 years. Their cultures are rich in art, traditional medicine, song, dance and story telling. To this day many people rely on the land and ocean for food and this was evidenced by elders sitting in the audience munching on herring roe harvested using hemlock boughs that morning. Herring roe is a salty delicacy with the texture not unlike undercooked quinoa and is entirely palatable. Despite the terrible hangover of the residential school system, and the environmental erosion that has taken place from over fishing and forestry, the Heiltsuk tradition is alive and kicking. The JRP members had the privilege of being served a view into this tradition on a platter.
On the Wednesday afternoon, Jordan Wilson, a Heiltsuk fisherman and hunter failed to hold back tears as he presented a supernatural story his late grandmother told him about the House of the Halibut. The story follows that the people hadn't eaten for a long time, so the chief went to the house of the halibut and asked to speak with the halibut. The chief convinces the halibut to come with him to the chief's home. In a tricky move the chief was able to feed his people with the halibut.*
At the conclusion of his presentation and while wiping tears from his eyes, Wilson explained why he was so affected. “It's difficult to share this because its like digging something out of a treasure box that you don't share everyday. I'm kind of in grief because I wouldn't think of sharing this with this many people here.”
Wilson's story, and the way it was so emotionally told, got me to thinking about the integrity of the process of gleaning stories. On the one hand it was such a treat to be privy to this knowledge, but on the other, a transgression that it was mined in such a way. While the JRP hearings are not an anthropology thesis, it spoke to the unfair process all First Nations are forced to go through in an effort to protect their territories and way of life. This type of disclosure is invariably reserved for family or other members of the community. These stories are often shared during a particular season, at an auspicious location or during a feast. Many of these stories are told as secrets, sacred narratives that can only mean something to a person who understands the topography of the landscape and the stories that came before.
I recently wrote a feature article on the issues facing the Sacred Headwaters for Coast Mountain Culture. One of the central characters of that piece was none other than Wade Davis. In many of Davis' books he recounts stories of his time spent documenting cultures around the world that vary from remote tribes in the Amazon to the Haitian Vodoun tradition. In a particular story from Davis' time in the Spatsizi Wilderness, just north of Smithers, BC, he explains how he butchered a moose with a pen knife. This act earned him the respect of an elder by the name of Alec Jack, and henceforth Jack began to share his traditional stories. For Davis the right to hear and tell an individual's stories is a privilege that must be earned and comes with a degree of trust and responsibility. To see the Heiltsuk people bare their souls, many visibly distressed, as they shared stories that are personal and sacred seemed a transgression.
The hearings, however, were not a forum for celebrating First Nations culture in a bid to preserve it, but merely a check-box that must be ticked before big industry can forge ahead. If against the Heiltsuk's wishes the Northen Gateway project is approved, and heaven forbid there is an oil spill, is there something to said for the fact that what is at stake has been documented? All testimonies have been heard in a court of law. They might have been forced to sit in a court they want nothing to do with, but there is a record and the Heiltsuk can stand strong in the knowledge that they made a convincing statement. A statement made through kind hospitality, through traditional song and dance, through the telling of stories and the revelation of places sacred to their people.
*I have in no way earned the privilege of hearing stories such as the House of the Halibut, and I was weary of sharing it in this piece. I finally chose to do so because Jordan Wilson and the other speakers who shared their secrets felt it was important that the panel and the Canadian public hear them so they might further understand Heiltsuk origins and their connection to a place currently threatened by oil tankers and the potential for an oil spill.
Transcripts of all presentations from Bella Bella and other JRP hearings are available to read here