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Cultural Traces Around the World

The Heiltsuk of British Columbia: Take a little, Leave a Lot

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During our time together, we will learn about a resourceful group of individuals in Western Canada called the Heiltsuk. Most of the Heiltsuk today live in the village of Bella Bella. The Heiltsuk have a well-defined code of ethics and morality, which has historically been taught through their oral tradition, music, dance, and artwork. The word Heiltsuk literally means “to speak or act correctly,” which encompasses how people are to behave in everyday and ceremonial life. They have a well-defined system of traditional laws that have been upheld by their Hereditary Chiefs for thousands of years. They view these rules of their ancestors as the overriding principles for all resource use and environmental management. A core belief is that they should “take a little and leave a lot.” Fundamental to these ideas is the concept that all things are connected and unity is important to maintain. The Heiltsuk have historically been known as artisans who excelled in creating canoes, bentwood boxes, chests, ladles, and other objects. While there are certain aspects of Heiltsuk art that are shared with other groups in the Pacific Northwest, including crest imagery and totemic designs, each tribe has its own unique features and styles. As a maritime people, they used the canoe as their main form of transportation, trading, and communication with other groups for thousands of years. There were many varied styles that were made for different purposes, including ocean-going and river canoes, as well as ones for trading goods and freighting, ceremonies, transportation, and racing. The House of the Heiltsuk is a sacred place that is used for both governance and ceremony. It is where their ancestors visit them from the spirit world and where they can go back and forth between the worlds during ceremony. Step-by-step, the Heiltsuk have been working to strengthen and rejuvenate their cultural heritage, by finding ways to honor their customs and values while living and working in the modern age. As we have discovered today, they have great beauty to share with the world through their artistry and craftmanship, and a moral code of governance.
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