The community of Bella Bella and the Heiltsuk Nation celebrated a historic milestone in mid-October, opening their first Big House in 120 years.
The previous Big House, believed to have been destroyed by missionaries, had been the cultural hub of the Heiltsuk community. Now, the Heiltsuk Nation once again has a space for spiritual and ceremonial events.
The significance of the event was recognized from areas well outside Bella Bella, with people travelling from Prince Rupert, Vancouver Island, Vancouver and more to take part in sharing the experience. One place where the event held particular importance was on Haida Gwaii, which saw a number of residents head south for the week long celebration. Among them was Kihlguulaans, Christian White, an Old Massett resident who had a special role to play in the Big House opening.
As part of an existing peace treaty process between the Haida and Heiltsuk Nations, the Council of the Haida Nation commissioned a totem pole to be raised in front of the Big House as a gift to the Heiltsuk Nation and its people. When the process started around a year-and-a-half ago, Kihlguulaans submitted a proposal that consisted of a drawing, and written explanation as to the significance of his design. Ultimately, his was the one chosen, and the carver set to work on the journey necessary to produce a totem pole.
Kihlguulaans found a log from a western red cedar tree in the St’aala Kun area. He started the initial carving work in March of this year, and working on the pole throughout August. He commissioned help from local artists along the way, at one point seeing about half-a-dozen people assist him with the pole.
|The ‘Haida/Heiltsuk Peace Pole’, as carver Kihlguulaans calls it, was raised outside the new Heiltsuk Big House in Bella Bella on Oct. 14. (Submitted photo)|
Kihlguulaans explained the significance of the pole, which consists of a trio of main components. “The concept of the totem pole was basically human figures, but also symbolic images,” Kihlguulaans said. It features a man on the bottom, a woman in the middle, and four watchmen on the top.
“The man is holding a copper, which is a symbol of wealth, honour and trade. A design on there symbolizes the sea chief that lives in Hecate Strait, a supernatural being,” Kihlguulaans explained. “The man is also wearing a headband made of cedar bark, and that’s symbolizing the secret societies, or the winter ceremonials.”
“The female figure is holding the talking stick, representing the oral history that’s been passed down: the songs, the stories, the names. Her robe represents the tree of life, the rivers and the salmon. Above that she’s wearing a headband, and that represents the sacred headwaters coming down from the mountains, down through the valleys and all the way out to the ocean,” Kihlguulaans said.
“Above there are four watchmen, symbolizing the four directions. The paddles in their hands represent canoe journeys bringing the people together. I used the colours on the paddles to symbolize the medicine wheel,” Kihlguulaans explained of the quartet at the pole’s peak. “They are rising up to defend the lands and waters. Their hands on their chest symbolizes unity. The tall hats represent the chiefs, and also the potlatches, where we do our ceremonies and redistribute the wealth that comes from all our resources and land.”
Kihlguulaans arrived in Bella Bella a week early to perform final preparations on the pole, which had been sent down earlier, before the official raising. Finally on Oct. 14, the many months of work Kihlguulaans and those who helped him had put in were realized in the form of a newly raised totem pole.
“It was quite an honour for me to be there and have my pole displayed and be raised there,” Kihlguulaans said. “We did our ceremony there, we did our carver’s dance, we did our cleansing of the pole, and the chiefs did their blessing with the eagle down. It really felt good for us to be together there. Even the weather that day turned out pretty well for it.”
Kihlguulaans believes the pole will perform the role of forging a bond between the two nations.
“I call it the Haida/Heiltsuk Peace Pole, because it was because of the peace treaty between the Haida and Heiltsuk people that made this happen,” Kihlguulaans explained. “People from Old Massett, Skidegate, Vancouver, Haida people that have lived in these other communities, we all got together to be a part of it. We all travelled there to stand together and enjoy the hospitality of the Heiltsuk people in Bella Bella.”
Alex Kurial | Journalist
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