For many of our Elders,
Húy̓at was the place where we could be Heiltsuk. This meant speaking our language, learning to live and act respectfully with our friends and family, including the non-human occupants of Húy̓at. The knowledge and teachings of our Elders were critical in this learning. We learned by watching and participating in tasks, by observing the world around us, and by listening to stories. We learned that sharing of knowledge and food is an essential part of being Heiltsuk, that it is our right to have access to the places where we can be Heiltsuk, and that is it our responsibility to maintain these places and our culture for future generations.
Many things have stood in the way of us carrying on these teachings. Despite the establishment of the reserve system in the 1880’s, our ancestors continued to go to customary harvesting locations on a seasonal basis. However, the Potlatch Law (1885 - 1951) forbid us from the ceremonial gathering where we affirmed who we are in relation to each other and to the places where we come from and belong. Introduced diseases, and especially the devastating smallpox epidemics of the 18th and 19th centuries, also threatened our ability to carry on these teachings.
Today, we have other health challenges resulting from introduced foods and not being “on the land”. In residential schools, as children, we were taken away from our Elders and the rest of our community, were severely punished for speaking Haíɫzaqv, and were removed from the places that make us Heiltsuk. Finally, after successfully tending our fish for thousands of years, fisheries regulations outlawed the use of fish traps and our ability to tend the river in the ways we had done for generations.
Despite all these obstacles to learning, our traditions remain strong. The potlatch system is thriving, and it is there that we affirm publically our connections to our ancestral stories, our hereditary names, and our origin places, such as Húy̓at. We are learning our language, we have our own Heiltsuk school, and we play a central role in the management of the fisheries and other resources in our territory. Being in and connecting to Húy̓at is a central part of our going forward.
"They didn't have much of a voice but they applied themselves in a quiet way and were really effective."
- Yím̓ás Wígviɫba Wákas Harvey Humchitt
"You know, I think when we went through our dark times as people here because those teachings were so strong and because that history was etched into people’s minds so strong there was nothing that was going to make them forget, no matter what you did to them or took away from them, they were never going to forget... The things that they went through to try and stop that cycle, residential schools and things like that, that didn’t stop it. And if that didn’t stop it, nothing will."
- Dúqva̓ísḷa William Housty
"Some of our people around my grandfather's age didn't allow their children to go away. Some of the children were kept at home and they were taught our cultural ways. And that's where we get people like our late Phyllis Wilson, or McKay... she was a knowledge keeper and wealth of knowledge and she didn't go away to school. Her grandmother took her and kept her at home."
- Yím̓ás Wígviɫba Wákas Harvey Humchitt
"I was feeling blessed to have lived long enough to see us come full circle, in having our children in our homelands experiencing the cultural wealth and not being afraid and really just embracing the completeness of who we are as Heiltsuk. And watching the children, it was so, watching the children made me realize that we have succeeded in reinforcing, reclaiming who we are as Heiltsuk people and our connection to the land and the resources."
- Hílístis Pauline Waterfall