Big House opening on Oct. 13, 2019. (@HeiltsukBH/Twitter)

Heiltsuk Nation open first Big House in 120 years on B.C. central coast

Opening means the community now has an appropriate space for spiritual and ceremonial events

Chief Coun. Marilyn Slett of the Heiltsuk Nation says it’s hard to put into words the excitement and emotion she feels at Sunday’s opening of the first ceremonial Big House in the territory in modern history.

The last Big House in the First Nation’s territory along the B.C. coast was destroyed 120 years ago and the community has been planning and fundraising to build a new one for decades.

The opening means the community now has an appropriate space for spiritual and ceremonial events like potlatches and the naming of babies, which had previously been held in a community centre, she said.

“It feels great, it feels surreal, it feels sometimes like a dream,” Slett said in an interview.

The community kicked off five days of celebration in Bella Bella on Sunday and expects as many as 2,000 guests to join them from as far away as New Zealand.

Gvakva’aus Hailzaqv, or House of the Heiltsuk, took 18 months to build and is constructed entirely of red and yellow cedar from the territory, including eight-ton and four-foot-wide logs with wood that was locally sourced and milled.

Indigenous artists have been working for 10 years to design, carve and paint four house posts that tell the origin story of the Heiltsuk people.

William Housty, cultural adviser on the project, said the opening is an important step toward cultural revitalization, following a history of oppression.

“Missionaries claimed that the (last) Big House was blown down in a storm. But none of our people ever believed that because they chose that area to live in because it was so well sheltered from the storms,” he said.

The Heiltsuk believe the missionaries knocked down the last Big House in their efforts to assimilate members of the First Nation, he said. It would be part of a series of efforts to erase Indigenous culture that also includes a federal ban on potlatches between 1880 and 1951.

Guiding builders on the construction of the Big House presented some challenges, considering no one was around 120 years ago to see the last Big House for themselves. But Housty said the First Nation has maintained a strong oral tradition that tracks the role of the Big House, supplemented by written accounts by fur traders, missionaries and others.

In one account, he said, the Big House is described as a living space. The rafters and house posts serve as the ribs and backbone of the structure, the front of the Big House is its face.

“It had the same sort of qualities we do as human beings,” he said.

The new build also breaks from the historic Big House in some ways, including measures to meet provincial building codes. It has about triple the capacity, with seating for up to 800 people and space for 1,000 if people stand.

“There’s a sense of pride knowing the dreams of so many ancestors are now being lived by our generation, people like my late grandfather who always talked about the Big House and how important it was aren’t here anymore,” Housty said. “Now we’re living their dreams.”

The total budget for the project was about $7 million and was backed by funding from other levels of government, including $2.5 million from the federal government. But members have also contributed, collecting donations at just about every potlatch and feast over the decades since the project was first imagined, Slett said.

“Going forward it’s a symbol of our strength and our resilience as people. I know it’s just going to make us stronger,” Slett said.

By Amy Smart, The Canadian Press

Just Posted

Two Sidney seniors struck by vehicle with foggy windows in marked crosswalk

Driver fined for failure to yield, limited visibility caused by foggy windows

Hundreds flock to the Bay for annual Unwrap the Glam Gala

Glamorous event supports mental health initiatives across Canada

Quebec City beats Victoria for lowest unemployment rate in Canada

Victoria’s unemployment rate was 3.2 per cent in October

Barbecue cooks up benefits for Movember foundation

Father’s battle with prostate cancer encourages Victoria man to support the cause

Cold, stormy winter forecast across much of Canada, The Weather Network predicts

In British Columbia temperatures will be slightly above normal and precipitation will be just below normal

Campbell River RCMP officer assaulted during traffic stop

Officer expected to make a full recovery; had been conducting impaired driving investigation alone

BC SPCA seeks help after senior cat attacked by dog twice

Nine-year-old tabby named Meow Meow will need her front leg amputated

Abbotsford police chief mulls more enforcement of homeless lawbreakers

‘When all else has failed we have to hold people accountable,’ Police Chief Mike Serr tells council

Striking Vancouver hotel workers, employer reach ‘tentative’ agreement

Employees of the Rosewood Hotel Georgia have been out at picket lines since talks broke off on Sept. 21

RCMP cut free activists chained to Kelowna bank, placed under arrest

The group is protesting Interior Savings Credit Union’s support of Kelowna Ribfest

Cell phone tickets worse tax grab than speed limits, SenseBC says

Distracted driving statistics questioned as B.C. tickets pile up

Most Read