Heiltsuk Nation hosts Tribal Journeys celebrations

A trip to Bella Bella in 2014 to witness the pageantry of Tribal Journeys’ homecoming to the B.C. coastal community ended up being a preview of a First Nations Renaissance.  Previously published: August 2014.

Tribal Journeys returns to Bella Bella after 21 years

Photos and story by Faye Bayko

The high-pitched screeching chirps of the eagles circling through the bright blue sky contrasted sharply with the earthy base notes of pounding drums and rhythmic chants rolling down the rocky, barnacle-encrusted beach and over the gently swaying sea to the 39 canoe teams waiting to be invited ashore.

Ceremonial protocol was at the heart of the gathering July 13, 2014, in Bella Bella. Tribal Journeys, an annual long-distance canoe challenge, had returned to its origins, a small village on the east coast of Campbell Island in the Central Coast region of British Columbia, and after 21 years Heiltsuk First Nation members were out in full force to welcome it home, arms and voices raised.

Known for its physical and spiritual transformative challenges Tribal Journeys starts with a canoe journey, during which some of the participating First Nations teams paddle over 800 kilometres, and ends with a week-long cultural immersion festival, Q’atu’was. Along the route to the final destination, which differs each year, First Nations communities host the participants, providing meals and lodging for the evening.

For the 2014 Tribal Journey’s Q’atu’was, Bella Bella was the final destination. Fifty-three canoe teams and their ground support arrived over three days in July and the small community saw its 1,450 population doubled and noise level tripled while experiencing some of the hottest weather of the summer.

During the week’s celebrations the school’s playing field and community centre were filled with shared stories, dances, and songs. These spilled out into the backyards, living rooms, and kitchens of the surrounding homes, making for late nights and early mornings for the volunteers.

While the pageantry and ceremony may attract some outsiders, Q’atu’was is not promoted as a tourist event. The canoe journey and festival that follows are part of a First Nations’ cultural and spiritual reawakening that began two decades ago and is taken very seriously by participants. This was summarized best by one participating canoe skip during his request to come ashore at the official landing on July 13, “(In 1993) we were challenged to build sea-going canoes, to rebuild our communities. You started a change from Alaska to Oregon that changed the world. As young people who grew up with Tribal Journeys we wouldn’t be who we are today without Tribal Journeys.”

The birth of Glwa

The Canadian half of the canoe journey, now known as Tribal Journeys, began with Expo 86. The City of Vancouver had sent out an invitation to First Nations requesting their participation in a pavilion honouring their culture. For various reasons plans for building that pavilion were scraped but the Heiltsuk Nation decided to participate in the exposition on their own terms. Since the exposition’s theme was transportation, the Heiltsuk felt they could showcase the earliest form of transport on the West Coast, a traditional sea-going canoe; unfortunately, such a canoe had not been built in the area for several decades.

“We had to ask for help because we didn’t remember how to do it,” explained Vina Brown, spokesperson for Q’atu’was Festival 2014. “We hadn’t done it in a long time so some of the knowledge, unfortunately, had been forgotten.” Help was provided from their neighbors the Haida Nation and other Coast Salish people, she said, and the canoe was paddled to Expo 86, then, three years later, paddled to Seattle for Washington state’s centennial.

Those journeys sparked something within the crew, said Brown, including her father Frank who was on both journeys. “They were so moved by the experience, so changed by how much they healed, that they just wanted everyone else to have that experience.”

The desire to share the experience resulted in an invitation being issued in Seattle for tribes to paddle in four years’ time to Bella Bella for the first Q’atu’was Festival in 1993.

The Washington connection

The Paddle to Seattle canoe journey had been a reawakening for the Washington State tribes as well but it was through the preparations for their 1989 event, rather than the event itself, that sparked the change.

Emmett Oliver of the Quinault Tribe was a member of the Washington State Centennial Commission and the Native American Canoe Project and proposed that a canoe journey be part of the celebrations.

Like the Canadians the American tribes had experienced a cultural disconnect and it was through the process of relearning to carve canoes and build the history behind them in preparation for the centennial celebrations that a cultural resurgence began.

The stage was then set for the two countries to become partners in a process that would gradually change the world for thousands of Aboriginal youth.

Suquamish Tribe chairman Leonard Forsman, who was in Seattle in 1989 and on both the 1993 and 2014 trips to Bella Bella, says he understands the transformative power of the trip but sees the trip as a duty as well as a pleasure. “To be on the water and to represent the pure nature of the water-born culture is to keep our marine tradition alive. It’s a symbol and a statement of who we are.”

While the canoe team members may change from year to year, the benefits, he said, are constant. “The canoe journeys are a great opportunity for Indian people to learn more about themselves, their culture, and their traditional values and connect with their ancestors. So, I encourage Indian people to get involved.”

For a detailed account of the Suquamish tribe’s Tribal Journeys 2014 experience check out their newsletter.

The business of Tribal Journeys

The pulling together goes beyond the curved grain of a cedar canoe slicing through the sea or the swaying of blanket fringe on a dance floor. The gathering of First Nations peoples, once outlawed during the political and religious wars that raged on both sides of the border bisecting North America in the 1800s, has allowed for discussion of joint concerns and plans of action.

During this year’s festival an Enbridge protest rally was held during which speakers warned that the battle had only just begun. “If you’re going to put a barrier in front of us, wait ‘till you see our barrier!” cried one speaker addressing the gathered crowd. Another stated that it did not matter how many jobs were promised or how much money invested, the risk was not worth it. “Once that oil hits the water it’s over.” Speaker after speaker voiced their concerns over the federal government’s June 17 approval of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.

It was announced that the Heiltsuk and Kitasoo-Xaixais First Nations had jointly applied for the right to bring a judicial review of the federal government’s decision on the Enbridge pipeline.
“We assert that the federal government has failed in its duty to consult honourably with First Nations,” stated Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett in a July 14 press release, “and they have made their decision based on flawed and uninformed recommendations from the Joint Review Panel. This will not stand.”

The application was the latest in a string of legal filings produced by several of the First Nations present at Q’atu’was Festival. The Haisla Nation, Gitxaala Nation, Council of the Haida Nation, Gitga’at Nation, Nadleh Whut’en First Nation, and Nak’azdli First Nation all had taken the government to court.

The legal action was only part of the business side of the festival. An economic summit was also held July 14 across the water at Shearwater on Denny Island. This was the inaugural event for Heiltsuk Economic Development Corporation (HEDC) and focused on indigenous economic opportunities.

About Author

Faye Bayko
I am a writer and photographer currently working out of Port Alberni, BC.