Gvukva’áus Haíɫzaqv. House of the Haíɫzaqv, it’s always been here

I have been back from the opening celebration of Gvukva’áus Haíɫzaqv for over a week. I am still struggling to process the emotional impact it had on me.

The Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) community of Waglisla (Bella Bella) who have been our friends, supporters and partners for over a generation, were about to celebrate the historic opening of the stunning new Gvukva’áus Haíɫzaqv (house of the Haíɫzaqv) with a five day potlatch celebration. Over 3000 people were expected. Knowing that accommodations were limited in the community I volunteered to bring Raincoast’s research vessel Achiever to add some accommodation support.

I was prepared for three days of possibly rough travel each way at this time of the year, but I was completely unprepared for the power and the emotional impact of the event itself.1

The pole raising

As well as the opening of the Gvukva’áus Haíɫzaqv itself, the five day potlatch featured a  physical affirmation of the peace agreement ratified a couple of years ago between the Haida and Haíɫzaqv peoples. 

Christian White, a wonderful Haida carver, was commissioned to create a pole for the Haida Nation who gifted it to the Haíɫzaqv to stand in front of the new Gvukva’áus Haíɫzaqv

 It is a physical embodiment of the agreement that they signed, committing to go forward in harmony to protect the lands and waters of their traditional territories.

A huge delegation of the Haida attended the event, and the pole-raising on day two was extremely powerful. Hereditary chiefs and elders from both nations blessed the pole with eagle down as singers and drummers from both nations lifted the pole to life.

Pole raising at the stunning new Gvukva’áus Haíɫzaqv.
Photo by Brian Falconer.

Gvukva’áus Haíɫzaqv

As dramatically beautiful as the building is, it’s not just a building. It is a home for centuries old cultural practices. It is the seat of governance, a place where traditional practices are reaffirmed and new ones given life and added to the powerful cultural lexicon of the Haíɫzaqv people.

I was privileged to witness this celebration and to gain some small insight into its importance to the community. This is not merely a new building, a colonial structure like a new community hall. This is a powerful place. A place to uplift, to house, to honour the cultural treasures that have been stored for generations. It is a place where those traditions will be maintained and new traditions will be introduced and uplifted in the old ways then passed down to future generations.

Dancing it to life

It was fitting and powerfully symbolic that the first feet to dance on the floor of the new Gvukva’áus Haíɫzaqv were the Haíɫzaqv children. All of the people of the coast understand that, when an important object like a blanket, a mask, a big house is created, it is inert until it is “danced to life”.

A poignant moment was when a small Haíɫzaqv blanket which had been gifted to a Haida family and rested there for generations was brought back as a gift to the Haíɫzaqv community. They danced the blanket back to life. It was a powerful symbol of the entire five days, as throbbing drums, powerful voices, and ancient dancing breathed life-giving energy into the blanket, the building and the culture and the people of this community.

It feels like it has always been here 

Haíɫzaqv hereditary chief Harvey Humchitt,  expressed his feeling that when he walked inside “it felt like it had always been here”. I shared the same feeling, not just about the comfortable enveloping feeling of the building, but about everything that I was seeing. 

The potlach was banned in 1885. First Nations people were prosecuted and even jailed for publicly practising any of their cultural rites and it is only very recently, in 1951 that the ban was rescinded. Some, perhaps much, was lost during that repressive period, but it didn’t go away. The stories, songs, dances and important cultural practises and protocols were protected, stored, and used whenever possible.

There hadn’t been a big house in the community of Waglisla for over 100 years. Despite that, it felt to me like everything I was witnessing had always been there and would always be there. It was waiting for a place to call home. The children danced and this building is now alive. It is that home.

All that had been repressed…  was waiting, stored in the land and in the waters… and in the DNA of the people themselves. It now had its own sacred place.

There has been Haíɫzaqv a cultural program at Koeye River for over 20 years and a bighouse there since 2006. (Achiever’s maiden voyage was to the opening of that big house.)

 I was privileged to watch over those years as elders and cultural leaders prepared the young people for the leadership role they would assume in the bighouse in their community.I watched with deep pride and joy as people that I knew as young campers, then as counsellors, effortlessly led the proceedings for 5 days.

The hands of the drummers and the singers were smaller then, but the powerful ancient rhythms that carried through the stunning forests of Koeye were the same rhythms and songs that filled the new Gvukva’áus Haíɫzaqv and overflowed into the streets of the community.

I watched toddlers in diapers, barely able to stand, their bums and feet moving to the powerful rhythm of the drums. Their eyes were absolutely fixed on their older brothers and sisters as they danced. Another generation will now inherit the treasures of a culture that has always been here.

Sharing and Acknowledgement

It was obvious that the pure joy of the Heiltsuk community was shared by other coastal nations as well and their cultural sharing had a prominent place in the proceedings. Delegations from the Kwakwaka’wakw, Wuikiniuxv, and Kitasoo/Xai’xais shared songs, dances and powerful stories, some more ancient than the huge cedars that had shape shifted into the posts and beams and house posts of Gvukva’áus Haíɫzaqv. Other songs and dances were created in recent times. They will be the inheritance of future generations.

Acknowledgement and showing respect is a fundamental part of First Nations culture. There were very touching and powerful acknowledgements and expressions of gratitude for the sharing of traditional knowledge and cultural treasures among the nations. 

There were also acknowledgements of those who helped the Heiltsuk in their journey to this day, including the forest companies who made major contributions to the construction of the Gvukva’áus Haíɫzaqv.

I was humbled when Raincoast was singled out for acknowledgement.

Although I was the one who was wrapped in a blanket, it was the generations of our Raincoast team who earned that honour. My brother, Nusi, Ian Reid, head carver of the four stunning house posts, spoke of the relationship between the Haíɫzaqv and Raincoast, and of the important work we have done and continue to do together. It was a moment I will never forget, nor will I forget the responsibility we at Raincoast have to continue to honour that relationship.

A huge gift for me was to be able to share this with my wonderful niece TJ and my beautiful dear friend Sonya Harrer.

Though TJ missed 4 days of her first year in high school, she was able to witness this historic event. She shared with me that she felt she had learned so much more than she would have at school. Judging from our really powerful conversations, I am certain that she did.

For Sonya, who provided fabulous meals for our guests on Achiever, it was an important opportunity to connect deeply with the First Nations (Sto:lo) part of her being.

I have always cherished the precious gift of friendship from people I have come to know and love in this community. The warmth of the overwhelming welcome from an entire community to any who would share their pride and their joy will stay in my memory forever.

All three of us struggle to articulate the things we experienced. TJ tells me that after sharing it with her friends, she resorts to “you really needed to be there”.

I will be forever grateful that we were. 

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