Bella Bella (Native Americans of the Northwest Coast)

Bella Bella is a term dating from 1834 that does not refer to an aboriginal self-designation. The Bella Bella (made up of at least three subgroups: the Kokaitk, Oelitk, and Oealitk), Haihais, and Oowekeeno are sometimes referred to as Heiltsuk. The Heiltsuk, along with the Heisla, are today identified as Bella Bella or northern Kwakiutl.

Location Traditionally, these groups lived in the vicinity of Queen Charlotte Sound, north of Vancouver Island and the Kwakiutl people, in the Canadian province of British Columbia. This is a relatively moderate, wet land marked by inlets, islands, peninsulas, mountains, and valleys.

Population Roughly 1,700 Bella Bellas lived in their territory in 1835. In 1901 the figure had shrunk to 330, but it climbed to 1,874 in 1995.

Language The Heiltsuk spoke Heiltsuk (Haihai and Bella Bella)-Oowekyala (Oowekeeno), a Wakashan language. The two component languages were virtually mutually unintelligible.

Historical Information

History Bella Bellas probably met non-Indians for the first time in 1793, when the explorers George Vancouver and Alexander Mackenzie arrived to prospect for the fur trade. Shortly thereafter, that trade brought more Anglos as well as Anglo-Indian violence. Milbanke Sound was the first local major trade center. In 1833, the Hudson’s Bay Company built Fort McLoughlin on Campbell Island as a major trading post. Although it abandoned the fort ten years later, the company opened a small store on the site about 1850. During the fur trade period, the Bella Bellas emerged as middlemen, controlling access to some interior tribes and playing the Americans and British off against each other.

An 1862 smallpox epidemic set off a period of rapid change. Dramatic Indian depopulation led to village consolidation. Missionization followed, as did the growth of the commercial fishing, canning, and logging industries. In 1880, the government separated Indians from their land by unilaterally establishing reserves. The Bella Bella reserve was run by Methodist missionaries. Village centralization and consolidation continued. Around 1900, two Oowekeeno villages were established near a sawmill and a cannery. The Haihais moved from their local villages in about 1870 to Swindle Island, a fuel depot for steamships.

In the twentieth century, northern Kwakiutls were largely displaced from the logging and fishing industries owing to a combination of factors, including competition with non-natives, technological advances, and loss of land rights. Increased unemployment and out-migration has been the result. However, ties remain strong between home communities and those people in regional cities and towns.

Religion Dancing or secret societies performed their ceremonies in winter. Initiation into the societies was by hereditary right. Dances—a first, or shamans’, series, including a cannibal’s dance; a "coming down again," or second, series, including war dances; and a dog-eating dance—were ranked according to the status of both the dance and the performers. Performances dramatized the encounter of an ancestor with a supernatural being. Wealthy, high-status people sponsored dances, feasts, and potlatches. A council of chiefs managed the winter dances.

Government As was generally the case along the Northwest Coast, the basic political unit was the autonomous local group or clan. Each such group was presided over by a chief. Parts of several clans often formed a village, where the highest-ranking chief had relative degrees of control over the others. For defensive purposes, some villages congregated to form loose confederations or tribes.

Customs Distinctive crests and ranked titles identified each of the four crest groups, or clans— Raven, Eagle, Orca, and Wolf. These groups also had heads, or chiefs. Resource sites could be owned by families, local groups, or crest groups and could be rented out for some form of compensation.

In general, society was divided into status-ranked groups, such as chiefs, free commoners, and slaves. Some divisions also added another free group between commoners and slaves, as well as several levels of chief. Symbols of high rank included tattoos, ornamentation, and the possession of wealth and hereditary titles. Commoners had less prestigious names, held smaller feasts, and had no inherited rights to certain dances. The low-class free were orphans or the unambitious, with no wealthy relatives.

Regular intermarriage occurred between the Bella Bella and the Bella Coola. Marriage between close cousins was condoned if it furthered one’s status. The bride price was a key ingredient of a marriage; in cases of divorce it was generally refunded.

Dwellings Semipermanent winter villages were composed of rectangular cedar plank houses. Features included vertical wall planks, a gabled roof and double ridgepole, carved interior posts, an adjustable central smoke hole, and mat-lined walls in sleeping areas. Summer camp houses were of similar but less elaborate construction. When they were in small or temporary camps, people made do with bark structures.

Diet Fish, especially salmon, was the staple. Other marine foods were also important. The Bella Bella took stranded whales only for their blubber. They ate several varieties of berries and hunted deer, wolf, bear, mountain goat, small mammals, waterfowl, and most birds (except crow and raven) and their eggs. Other than in winter, when food stores were eaten, people migrated seasonally to various resource sites.

Key Technology Fishing technology included stone and wood stake weirs, traps, harpoons, dip nets, and clubs. Harpoons, clubs, and bow and arrow were used for hunting sea mammals. Land animals were hunted with the help of dogs, snares, spears, and deadfalls. Digging sticks helped people gather roots. Most woodworking tools were of stone. Women made burden and storage baskets.

Trade The Bella Bella traded shellfish and seaweed with more inland groups (such as the Bella Coola) for eulachon and eulachon products. They also obtained canoes in trade, often from the north.

Notable Arts Bentwood boxes, chests, canoes, and horn spoons and ladles were items of fine local construction. Also important were relief carved and painted ceremonial/religious items such as totem poles and masks.

Transportation The cedar dugout, a shallow-bottom canoe used with round-tipped blades, was the primary means of transportation. The Bella Bella and Haihais also used bark canoes for lake travel.

Dress In warm weather, women wore cedar-bark aprons; men went naked. Blankets of woven cedar bark, mountain goat wool or dog hair, or tanned, sewn skins kept people warm in cold weather. Women wore waterproof basket caps and cedar-bark ponchos in the rain. Both sexes wore their hair long. Those who could afford it wore abalone nose and ear pendants. High-status women also wore labrets, dentalia bracelets, necklaces, and anklets. They also deformed their babies’ heads for aesthetic purposes. The people painted their bodies and faces against sunburn.

War and Weapons The Bella Bella fought regularly, mainly against the Bella Coola, Haida, Tsimshian, and Kwakiutl. They were well organized militarily. The Haihais were regularly under attack, but the Oowekeeno were more geographically isolated. Revenge, trespass, violation of custom, and seasonal shortages of food were common causes of war.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Heiltsuk Band, formerly the Bella Bella, controls 22 reserves on 1,369 hectares of land on Campbell Island. As of 1995, the population was 1,874. Elections are held under the provisions of the Indian Act, and the band is unaffiliated.

Economy Important economic activities and resources include a shipyard, cable television, fisheries, and small businesses.

Legal Status The Heiltsuk Band is a federally and provincially recognized entity.

Daily Life Throughout the twentieth century, life for the Bella Bella has been characterized by displacement from local industries, the loss of rights to their land, and slow population increase. One result of these trends has been high unemployment and out-migration, although ties between home communities and populations in Vancouver remain relatively strong. Children attend band and provincial schools. A Heiltsuk cultural-educational center facilitates the rebuilding and promotion of local culture. Other facilities include a community hall and a day care center. The old religion has been largely replaced by Christianity, and much of the traditional culture has been lost.

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