William Housty addresses the crowd at the July 6 celebration in Shearwater

History, heritage, and honour – a Remembrance Day like no other

History, heritage, and honour – a Remembrance Day like no other

On Saturday July 6, 40 Bella Coolan’s, ranging from small children to seniors, gathered at the wharf at 7am to take the Clowhom Spirit to nearby Shearwater. On a beautiful sunny morning, Dall’s porpoises playing in our wake, and eagles overhead, we shared in the camaraderie of being “The Bella Coola Contingent” for the unveiling of the Warrior Pole carved by Heiltsuk Carver/Artist, Nusi Yakuudlas ‘Ian’ Reid, the new Cenotaph, the Replica Stranraer Flying Boat weathervane, built by the Canadian Museum of Flight in Langley, and the “Bella Bella – United in History” mural by acclaimed artist Paul Ygartua.

We arrived at the dock to the smell of salmon smoking by a huge fire pit, tended by the famed artist himself Nusi Yakuudlas Reid. “Locals, aside from just First Nations, locals period, died to protect us. The Warrior pole is dedicated to all the descendents, as much as it is to all those who served. It is an honour to pay homage to all of our ancestors who fought and died for what we have today.”

Hereditary Chiefs from the Heiltsuk Nation opened the ceremonies with a traditional dance and blessing, while the Heiltsuk Youth provided the drumming and chanting. The stunning Warrior Pole, with a proud Raven at its crest, was blessed with Eagle Down and imbued with the spirit of friendship and pride through a traditional Paddle Song. The 125ft x 22ft mural, when unveiled, received a similar blessing of Eagle Down, although on a much larger scale, and any descendents of those whose portraits were unveiled had time to speak at the podium about their ancestors’ accomplishments, and to share the stories of those who influenced the development of the Denny Island area.

With almost four months to go until Remembrance Day, the bugle sounded “The Last Post,” the colours were lowered and raised, the poppies; as bright red as the maple leaf behind them, were pinned to the fluttering flag draped over the soon to be unveiled cenotaph, and a welcome summer breeze cooled the crowd of over 200. “Being here today means a lot to me, the significance of what all the vets did over the years, who fought and what they gave up for our country,” said Ron Richards, President of Bella Coola Legion Branch #262. “This area has a lot of military history, and today brings that history back into focus.”

Twelve First Nations Veterans had been identified, and researched. Craig Widsten, President of Shearwater Resort and Marina, read the names of the Native War Veterans of the Central Coast after the unveiling and dedication of the Warrior Pole. David Bernard (Wuikinuxv), Tom Brown (Kitasoo), George Brown (Kitasoo), William Cooper (Nuxalk), Herb Edgar Sr. (Nuxalk), Donald Gladstone (Heiltsuk), Benjamin Hanuse (Wuikinuxv), Ray Humchitt (Wuikinuxv), Sammy Larson (Heiltsuk), Alan Newman (Heiltsuk), Henry Paul (Kitkatla), Daniel Walkus (Wuikinuxv).

Kurt Edgar and family were on hand for the unveiling. I asked him about the relationships during this time, as historically it was well known as being bad between the government and the Native People. “The relationship between Herb Sr. and the air force crew was really good. We seven children were named after his fellow servicemen, and the army was good to our family,” said Edgar. “When our father passed away in 2008, the army reimbursed the Squamish Band for all the transportation and accommodation costs they had provided for our family, and the costs to transport our father home. They really stood behind us and our family.”

The Edgar family had a photograph of Herb Sr. in uniform, a young man, no more than 18, smiling and proud to be of service to the country. (The Edgar family would like to gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Cheryl Billy of the Squamish Nation for facilitating the Army reimbursement)

Vera Robson and family were there representing the four surviving generations of the Clayton family, with three generations attending. John Clayton (1842-1910), one of the 17 portraits chosen to be on the new mural, is Bill Robson’s great-grandfather. Clayton was the first immigrant landowner and businessmen in Bella Coola and agent for the Hudson’s Bay Company. He operated the first store and post office in old town Bella Bella and later sold the property to BC Packers. “I loved all of us getting together like that and celebrating,” said Robson “It is important for my kids to feel the history and I wish more of my kids could have been there. I think John Clayton would have been pleased to see how his family has evolved.”

Sisulth ‘Frank’ Johnson, elected Chief Councilor of the Wuikinuxv Nation, whose grandfather Dave Bernard was a communications person during the war said, and was one of 12 Native vets honoured. “Today also acknowledges all those who were never acknowledged, like the Rangers for example, who were all given training, guns, and ammo ‘just in case,’” said Johnson. “Many Aboriginals lost all their rights and status by joining the army, so when they came back they had nothing to go back too, non-native servicemen were given their choice of land, but Aboriginals were not allowed to own land. They were no longer considered Aboriginal, yet they weren’t white either, so many of them died of alcoholism and substance abuse on the city streets, like Tommy Prince from Manitoba.”

Sgt. Tommy Prince, Devil’s Brigade, was one of Canada’s most decorated First Nations soldiers, serving in WWII and the Korean War. He was awarded a Military Medal during an investiture at Buckingham Palace, and the US Silver Star. “Today represents only a portion of the stories of what Aboriginal people had accomplished during the wars, and they are coming out now,” said Johnson.

One story he told me was of First Nations in WWI scaring Germans by charging at them while wearing war paint and screaming war cries. In WWII a group of prisoners being held by opposing forces were released when the guards realized one was Native and remembered the fearful stories they had heard growing up of the fearsome courage of the First Nations in WWI.

Duka’aisla ‘William’ Housty, whose grandfather, Ray Humchitt, was the oldest hereditary chief there and is the only surviving First Nations veteran of the 12 that were honoured that day. Humchitt is the son of Chief Harry Humchitt (1865-1925), who was one of the original founding Chiefs of the Heiltsuk Nation, and one of four Chiefs to be depicted on the mural. Humchitt received a standing ovation when he rose to place his poppy on the Canada Flag.

“Craig had heard me at a potlatch in the past, and had called me to assist with the mural’s cultural history. He also asked me if I would do the ceremonies and the blessings,” said Housty. “Craig felt that it was really important to include the whole community, and today is about the whole community living side by side, to bridge and acknowledge the relationships that we have.” Of his grandfather’s role in the day, “I’m really happy to have him here, and happy to have a lot of the Heiltsuk youth participating in much of today’s ceremonies, it feels like it has come full circle.”

Steve Carpenter, a descendent of Captain Richard Carpenter (1841-1931) who spoke for his family in a short, but very well spoken, speech said, “No matter the colour of your skin, your tribe, your creed, this mural portrays the legacy that we are ALL Coastal Peoples!” This garnered a huge round of applause and many wiped away tears. Captain Carpenter was the most famous carver, artist, canoe/boat builder in his era, and the first lighthouse keeper at Dryad Point.

Hilistis ‘Pauline’ Waterfall, 2010 Order of BC recipient, educator and founding member of the Indigineous Adult and Higher Learning Association, “Keeper of the Knowledge” of the Heiltsuk Nation, was an instrumental part of making this day possible. “What endeared me most was Paul’s openness to culture, his openness to learning and his willingness to capture the spirit and essence of our ancestors,” she said. “In the old days, our people believed that if you could capture the spirit of someone in a photograph, or a painting, then it was an eternal treasure that kept us connected to them. When he started, he felt the ancestral and spiritual energy. I call him, my ‘Mural miracle maker.’”

Housty acknowledged and thanked Ygartua for the deep respect he showed when dealing with their ancestors. He presented Widsten and Ygartua with Beaded eagle feathers, “Which represent the strength, unity, and power that comes from the wings of the Great Eagle,” said Housty. “It comes from all of our people, in recognizing your foresight, drive, and determination, to make sure this project was completed. Thank you for making sure that both of our communities were working together and included in this great day.”

Hilistis went on to conclude, “We wanted Paul to come and paint a mural about our history on our new longhouse in Bella Bella. When we realized the cost involved… we struck a deal… a lifetime supply of seafood,” said Hilistis to a large round of applause and laughter from the audience. “Not only is this a visual reminder of who and where we all come from, but we will also be developing a curriculum so that we can teach local community history to all the schools.”