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

Japanese students visit Nanaimo-Ladysmith for cultural exchange

Students from Furukawa Gakuen High School hosted by mid-Island families this past weekend

Nanaimo RCMP look for missing man with memory loss and mobility issues

Robert Gillies last seen at coffee shop in Departure Bay

GUEST COMMENT: City should stop catering to fast-food drive-thrus

Eliminate drive-thrus to improve safety and health and reduce emissions, says guest columnist

Former Nanaimo Pirate selected Czech Baseball’s Coach of the Year

Mike Griffin coached national team during Olympic qualifiers

Chamber of commerce wants to check out Nanaimo’s best Christmas lights

Residents and businesses asked to submit their addresses by this Wednesday, Dec. 11

UPDATE: Electrical short caused motorhome fire

Nanaimo Fire Rescue extinguished blaze Monday afternoon on Esplanade and Irwin Street

Strata rental bans escape B.C. speculation tax through 2021, Carole James says

Vacant home tax won’t apply to cabins accessible only by water

WFP the Grinch who stole Christmas

It makes me really sad that you don’t understand the labour relations side of the business.

China hints at national security trials for 2 Canadians detained for one year

The two Canadians’ detention is largely seen as retaliation for the arrest of a Huawei exec

B.C. seaplane company set to test the first commercial electronic plane

The plane is powered by a 750 horsepower electric motor

Fireballs to fill the sky Friday for brightest meteor shower of the year

Geminid meteor shower features colourful, brighter, longer shooting stars

Province sues over sailing incident that killed teen with disabilities

Gabriel Pollard, 16, died from injuries after marine lift failed

First Nations want Big Bar landslide cleared ASAP to allow fish passage

Leadership calling for urgent action and resources to remove obstruction on the Fraser

Most Read