Heiltsuk Territory encompasses 16,658 square kilometres of land, and extensive nearshore and offshore waters in an area that has only recently come to be known as the Central Coast of BC. Our territorial boundaries are defined by six Heiltsuk tribal groups and extend into national waters. According to our nuyem or oral tradition, we have had a relationship with these rich and productive lands and waters for countless generations.
Heiltsuk oral tradition states that the original Heiltsuk ancestors were set down by the Creator in various areas in the territory now referred to as the Central Coast of British Columbia, before the time of the great flood. An archeological excavation and study of ancient remains based in the Heiltsuk Village site of Namu in the 1960’s and 1970’s concluded that the history of the Heiltsuk go back in excess of 12,000 years.
We affirm Gvi’ilas, the laws of our ancestors as the paramount principle to guide all resource use and environmental management. According to Chief Moses Humchitt, Gvi’ilas refers to our “power” or authority over all matters that affect our lives. It is a complex and comprehensive system of laws that embodies values, beliefs, teachings, principles, practices, and consequences. Inherent in this is the understanding that all things are connected and that unity is important to maintain.
Gvi’ilas has been described as the ethos of our people: “Gvi’ilas not only governed our relationship and responsibilities to land and resources, but also social relationships and obligations with respect to lands and resources. For example, take a little and leave a lot; dispersed and varied resource harvesting obligations to share and support family and community; obligations to care for the resource; seeing all aspects of harvesting, from the taking of the resources to the methods used, as a gift of the Creator.”
Furthermore, Gvi’ilas governs our relationships with both the temporal and spiritual worlds: “Relationships with and use of natural resources were rooted in a value system that ensured sustainability and respect. It was believed that all living matter had a spiritual essence that was respected, and interconnectedness was understood. Each family was given responsibility over specific land and water bases. Sustainable use and management was enforced by certain practices and teachings. Plants were gathered in a specific way. The first salmon caught was blessed with ritual ceremony that acknowledged its sacrifice and need to give sustenance to our people. Communication with the spirit of the land, sea and its life forms was common through respect and prayer.”
This system, upheld by the Hemas in consultation with the people, allowed our people to grow, evolve and flourish for thousands of years. Traditionally, Gvi’ilas laws were orally articulated and agreed upon. They were reviewed, reaffirmed, and amended annually.
“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 never surrendered their aboriginal rights or title. Leaders of the community have struggled to address the land question throughout this century. As one chief said in 1913, during the McKenna-McBride Commission, August 1913:
Much of the McKenna-McBride Commission testimony is summed up in the following statement which shows that the people of Bella Bella identified the same problems as did outsiders – land scarcely fit for cultivation, increasingly restricted participation in commercial fishing and logging industries, questionable economic future for generations to come – but considered a different solution from that of moving away and assimilating with the immigrants.
We are satisfied with the reserve for living purposes, but we would like to have the free use of the surrounding land for the purposes of logging and fishing and to have all the hunting privileges on it. We are afraid that later on we will have no way to make any money, and we would like to have these villages reserved to us now. Our children are growing up now and they will have no way to make their living. That is what is bothering us at the present time.” ~ Charles Windsor