February 17, 2020

“…we have left our imprint on the landscape, just as the landscape has imprinted on us.” (Húy̓at: Our Voices our Land)


The Heiltsuk people of British Columbia’s Central Coast region have a long history of embracing a connection to land and place. The community, which dates back as far as 11,500 years, has rooted their identity in the natural landscape and grown to deeply respect the resources that sustain them. Through quiet observation of the world around them, the Heiltsuk have developed an acute awareness of the interdependency of all life forms and learned that preserving the environment and their traditional ways is fundamental. 


Traditional Heiltsuk knowledge and collective wisdom is, in part, safeguarded through the use of storytelling, ornúyṃ́. This vital practice bridges the gap between generations and offers descendants the opportunity to further connect with community, land and place. Many of these ancestral stories also provide a framework for interacting with and understanding one’s place in the world, as well as a means for understanding cultural origins. In recent years, this custom has evolved to include a non-Heiltsuk audience, as one community member explains: “…while the Heiltsuk have a responsibility to guard their teachings, they also have a duty to share them, especially with others who have lost their connection to land and place” (Emilee Gilpin,‘The heartbeat of our community’: Heiltsuk open historic big house).


A Heiltsuk native endeavoring “to bridge Western science and Indigenous knowledge” (Indigenous Knowledge and Ocean Science) is’Qátuw̓as Jessica Brown. In her 2017 Tedx Talk, she addresses the urgency of respecting our natural resources by relaying thestory of the Salmon People, told to her by her brother. This particular núyṃ́ offers a progressive lens by which to view our connection with the natural environment and encourages us to open our eyes to nature’s vulnerability. The story brings to life this core tenet of Heiltsuk culture by describing a boy’s journey through negligent action, repercussions and learning. The descriptive imagery used in this núyṃ́ transcends time and transports listeners to a riverbank where they can discover truths about life alongside the young character.


Integral to Heiltsuk storytelling is the community’s ancestral “living language”, calledHaíɫzaqvḷa (Heiltsuk Nation). This dialect is imperative for the continued preservation of Heiltsuk culture and plays a key role in the community’s 2019 to 2024 Revitalization Strategic Plan. In addition to “[supporting] a high level of community engagement in the revitalization of Haíɫzaqvḷa”, the Strategic Plan is guiding the Heiltsuk forward by giving a voice to their core values: “Respect: ​We place value on our language, our people, and homelands.Reciprocity: ​We need each other to be successful.Resilience: ​We are strong, innovative and adaptable”(Heiltsuk Revitalization Strategic Plan). 


The values, vision, mission and goals set out by the plan are also supported byGvi’ilas; “a complex and comprehensive system of laws that embodies values, beliefs, teachings, principles, practices, and consequences” (Heiltsuk Tribal Council – Culture). This system offers invaluable guidance for all Heiltsuk, including younger generations who are forging a path in today’s unpredictable world. For example, the basic philosophies surrounding “take a little and leave a lot…obligations to care for the resource…[and]…seeing all aspects of harvesting, from the taking of the resources to the methods used, as a gift of the Creator” (Heiltsuk Tribal Council – Culture) are invaluable when striving to live in peace with all life forms. 

One of many clear examples of the Heiltsuk living true to these philosophies is seen in the community’s respect for, and preservation of,Kisolite™ Glacial Clay. Used for generations “to treat stomach disease, diabetes, burns and other ailments” (Steph Eva Wood,The Complex World of Kisolite™ Clay), the Heiltsuk have embraced their role as protector of this natural resource and taken measures to safeguard its use amidst present-day competition. One company entrusted by the Heiltsuk and similarly focused on preserving the natural environment is Back to Earth. “Honored to be given the privilege of including this precious clay in many of their products” (Canadian Kisolite™ Glacial Clay), Back to Earth is equally steadfast in recognizing its role as nature’s guardian in today’s modern landscape.  

In our fast-paced, technology driven world, finding a connection to land and place, and living in peace with all life forms, can seem like an impossible feat. Many of us have become grossly disconnected from our food sources and have lost contact with our ancestral wisdom and knowledge. As a result, we often treat natural resources such as water, oil, air, coal and wood like infinite possessions, and nurture a relationship with individuality over community and culture.


Before we permanently dissociate from the intricate web of life, I propose that we learn from the ways of the Heiltsuk people, and from all those who recognize our responsibility as caretakers of planet earth. Like a mirage on the horizon, natural resources will inevitably, and permanently, evaporate if we don’t collectively appreciate their vulnerability and take action to protect them. As a global community, let’s regain our connection to land and place and salvage a reciprocal respect for all human and non-human life, by deciding to learn from each other, our ancestors, and our natural surroundings.


Written By: Zoë Tomichich

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