If you are going to be in downtown Montreal in the next couple of months, you should consider checking out a unique art exhibit at the McCord Museum, located on Sherbrooke St. Entitled “Kaxlaya Gvilas,” meaning “the ones who uphold the laws of our ancestors,” it showcases the past and present art of the Heilstuk nation, who reside on BC’s central coast. There is no Heiltsuk word for “art” because it is seen as something that is inextricably connected with the culture, traditions, territories and resources. The title was chosen to reflect the importance of this interconnection. The first exhibition of Heiltsuk art, it has been touring Canada since June, 2000, with Montreal’s McCord Museum its final stop. After October 5, it returns to Bella Bella, BC.

What makes this exhibit so unique is that the voice of the exhibit is not that of the museum. Nearly every text consists of a quotation, statement or comment by a Heiltsuk person. Also, unlike most exhibitions of First Nations art, which display either artifacts or modern artworks, this one intermixes both historical and contemporary works. It was the wish of the Heiltsuk nation that the exhibit make evident the survival and vitality of Heiltsuk culture today. The exhibit is the result of a collaborative effort between the Heiltsuk tribal council, the Heiltsuk Cultural Education Centre, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Royal British Columbia Museum.

‘The exhibit is about the strength and resilience of the Heiltsuk people, the importance of our culture, the teaching of our young so they will not forget the struggles of our ancestors, and it is about the unique and beautiful Heiltsuk art,” says Pam Brown, the exhibit’s curator and a member of the Heiltsuk Nation.

The exhibit includes introductory statements from the Heiltsuk tribal council and offers an historical overview, with a discussion of the impact of European contact on the Heiltsuk. As one Heiltsuk quotation explains, “These are our riches, these are our treasures.”

The historical works were collected between 1899 and 1906 by a Methodist Missionary who lived amongst the Heiltsuk. Richard Whitfield Large sent over 284 artifacts from Bella Bella to the Ontario Provincial Museum during a time when it was thought Native culture was becoming extinct. Large commissioned and purchased almost all the artifacts because he thought they were representative of a fading way of life. However, the contemporary works attest to the fact that, as one Heiltsuk Chief put it, “our culture never died.”

The Heiltsuk Nation is located at the centre of the Northwest Coast. The descendents of the original Heiltsuk tribes live at Bella Bella (Waglisla), a community of about 1,500 people today. (From a pre-contact population of about 20,000 people, their numbers dwindled to just over 200 in the early part of the 20th century.) The original Heiltsuk-speaking tribes inhabited the outer islands, protected inland waterways and mainland fiords of the central coast between Rivers Inlet and Milbanke Sound. The Haisla, Oweekeno, Coast Tsimshian, Haida, Bella Coola and Kwakiutl nations are all Heiltsuk neighbours. This geographic centrality is mirrored by a cultural one: Heiltsuk ceremonialists, canoe makers and artists were widely known and greatly influential among their coast neighbours. Despite this central position and significance of the Heiltsuk, relatively little is known about their art and culture. Books and exhibitions about northwest coast art, culture, society and history have dealt with the Heiltsuk minimally, if at all. This can partly be explained because of biased concerns by scholars about “cultural authenticity and tradition.” While the original Heiltsuk did live “traditional’1 lifestyles, when the Hudson’s Bay Company established a fort on Campbell Island, a Heiltsuk village grew around it. After the devastating smallpox epidemic of the 1860s, the remnants of the tribes gradually amalgamated in what is now known as Bella Bella.

In 1880, the Methodist church made Bella Bella its base for mission work on the central coast. Outwardly the community came to resemble a European style town. It was promoted by the Methodist church and the Canadian Government as “a model for native modernization and assimilation.” Yet the culture continued to thrive. Bella Bella people adapted and appropriated selected aspects of Euro-Canadian culture to their own changing needs. Many practices were forced underground, including ceremonial dances and the potlatch, which was outlawed by the federal government from the late 19th century until 1951.

Today, the Heiltsuk nation is striving to retain its lands and culture. They never surrendered their aboriginal rights or title and leaders are struggling to address the land question. They have maintained close ties to their land and resources. The language (Hailzaqvia) has survived and is taught in school. ‘We live in a different society now,” said Robert Hall of the Heiltsuk Nation. ‘We’ve come full circle and our people again have the opportunity to learn the art and the language. The next generation will get strength from what we have acquired. Our children will tell the story.”