The village of Bella Bella off the coast of central British Columbia is not an easy place to get to. Located 181 kilometers north of Vancouver Island, it is the home of the Heiltsuk First Nation, who know their home by its original name, Waglisla. Last week, as storms and fires were raging here, I set off to visit old friends and colleagues there, and was reminded of one real and hopeful path the Heiltsuk have charted in our rapidly changing world.
My traveling companion, Lisa J. Watt, a citizen of the Seneca Nation who is working with Ecotrust to grow our support for Native communities, and I dropped into Bella Bella, then hitched a ride by boat to the Koeye (Kvai in current Heiltsuk spelling) River Lodge 47 kilometers to the south where Larry Jorgenson, his family, and the Heiltsuk community look after a 45,000-acre watershed.
While their story may sound remote to those struggling to rebuild in Houston, South Asia, or the Caribbean, it is a story not only of survival but of a path towards a more reliable prosperity in our rapidly changing world.
The Heiltsuk, a word that in their language connotes “the truth,” have always said they have been home, on the central coast of what we call British Columbia, not just for the past 14,000 years that archaeologists have recently documented, but since creation. At least their own creation as a community. That’s thousands, and thousands, and thousands of years prior to George Washington, Christopher Columbus, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, or whomever might be referenced as “founding figures” of Western civilization.
The Heiltsuk people have been around for a long, long time, survived and even prospered through interglacial, pre-Holocene, pre-climate friendly periods of sea level rise and fall, of global warming and cooling and ice ages. They have experienced all forms of devastation, including relatively recent colonial genocide — perhaps the most horrific of all.
But through remarkable persistence, the Heiltsuk people are still there. Not in their historic numbers of roughly 18,000, but closer to 2,000 today, after falling to just a few hundred people a century ago.
So leaving the big fires near my mere five generations of family’s home near the Columbia River Gorge to visit the Heiltsuk last week was reassuring that we may all persist in the face of enormous global challenges.
Ecotrust and Ecotrust Canada have done what modest work we could to support the Heiltsuk over the past quarter century. Three remarkable individuals were honored with the Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Award: Jess Housty, Kelly Brown, and Pauline Hilistis Waterfall.
We have tried to honor the ways in which their community at large is able to make decisions, defend their home, and continue to rebuild despite continued threats to their well-being.
Ecotrust’s early work involved mapping and describing the global character, range, and status of coastal temperate rain forests. One result was learning that the Koeye was one of a handful of large rain forest watersheds left largely intact — un-logged, un-dammed, un-paved old growth forests of Sitka spruce, western red and Alaska yellow cedar, hemlock, and fir with pristine rivers, lakes, and estuaries.
The Heiltsuk and neighboring First Nations have been fending off commercial fishing, road building, and logging in the Koeye for years. Despite their protest, one small tract of some 200 acres was acquired and clear-cut, then sold for the development of a sport fishing lodge. When it came on the market, Ecotrust raised $1.0 million (U.S.) and worked with Ecotrust Canada and then-president Ian Gill to convey the title to the Heiltsuk people in a memorable two-day re-matriation (matriarchs reign supreme in many First Nation communities) ceremony in 2001.
The existing lodge on the property was burned to the ground in 2011, which offered an opportunity to rebuild and regenerate in an appropriate and local way.
The site has gradually been rebuilt using Heiltsuk milled wood, art, and craft. All the lumber used for the rebuilding at Koeye is from a community-use forest license and milled in Bella Bella, the mill employing upwards of six local men throughout the summer.
Solar panels, a new micro-hydro facility, vegetable gardens, a cafe, and cabins for staff and guests have evolved without a master plan, organically, bottom-up with culturally appropriate materials.
Logging companies have donated cedar, carpenters and craftsmen who stumble into the Koeye by sail have volunteered labor and love, and young tribal members and university researchers are developing a world-class ecosystem research program, for which private research institutes, provincial, and Federal Canadian government agencies have provided support.
While traditional cedar weirs for trapping salmon and steelhead are used, high-tech “pit tags” have also been installed in some of the fish to track them as they enter and leave the watershed for accurate counting. One hundred distinct individual grizzly bears have been identified in the watershed; their hairs are used for state-of-the-art genetic mapping and stored in the American Natural History Museum. This watershed ecosystem-level science is becoming a standard and a reference baseline for ecosystem-based management in the entire Great Bear Rainforest and adjacent coast in central and northern BC.
But this is just the beginning. Perhaps more significant is the community-based approach to decision-making and development. A Heiltsuk camp for kids has been running for years on the Koeye beaches and a traditional “big house” was built nearby. Over 100 kids attended Koeye Camp this summer — a program for youth between the ages of eight and fifteen from Bella Bella and nearby communities, and for Heiltsuk youth placed in foster care outside of the area. For many, camp is their first opportunity to experience their ancestral culture, homelands, and waters.
Almost daily a sow grizzly or two with her two- or three-year-old cubs ambles through the kids’ camp, climbing over canoes and up to the lodge to graze on wild salal berries. The first thing kids are taught is to look around to see if grizzlies are in camp, pay attention, and give them the room they deserve.
And the Lodge is home to two resident Alsatian and Pyrenese bear dogs who are on constant patrol: they start barking and face off the sow, always getting between her and any people around, just to remind each other of their presence. While Lisa and I were there, they did a daily dance: a knowing charge from the dog, an occasional charge from the sow, but then the dogs come back smiling, and lie down. Dogs and bears respect each other and go about their business.
A bear dog interacts with a sow grizzly bear at Koeye Camp in Bella Bella, BC.
We at Ecotrust are proud of the work we have done with the Heiltsuk, as with other First Nations, Alaska Natives, and American Indian tribes in the lower 48, and wish we could do much more. But for now we, too, go about our business, with renewed hope for Salmon Nation.