Memory Story | Traditional Healing through Remembering

By: Hilistis Pauline Waterfall 

There’s a Heiltsuk child in me whose growth stopped at the age of 12 and doesn’t know a Heiltsuk adulthood. Conversely, there’s a White adult in me who started to grow at the age of 12 but doesn’t know a White childhood. I left home at 12 years old to attend school far from home, and was thrust into a foreign world in complete cultural shock. Not having a good command of English compounded the problem. The Indian residential school system was imposed upon us as First Nations children in Canada for at least 125 years. Its painful and negative results are documented through the Indian Residential Schools Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC), bringing into broad public light the multigenerational cultural loss and displacement of at least 150,000 First Nations children, including me.

According to Hon. Senator Murray Sinclair, Chair of the TRC, education caused this mess, and education will also get us out. As a survivor of this system, my indoctrinated mind equated education with Western values. I am confident that the key to unravelling this “mess” lies in equating education with more traditional Heiltsuk values. Despite the intergenerational disruption in the transmission of knowledge, our collective cultural memory continues to exist, inform and support the renewal and revitalization of Heiltsuk ceremonies, values, teachings, language and beliefs. Decolonizing my programed Western mind and embracing my Heiltsuk mind through traditional learning were key to reinforcing my sense of place, both within my Heiltsuk culture and the outer Western world. 

Innate memory runs deep, and, when nurtured and guided, helped me to heal and rekindle my confidence and cultural pride. The revival of cultural memory was fundamental in the steps taken to help rebuild our potlatch system over the past 30 years. Heiltsuk youth now particulate freely in learning our Hailhzaqv language, in dancing, singing, drumming and other cultural ways that were banned for at least six decades. Based on my experience, cultural renewal is key to continued adaptation and survival, and traditional education will continue to provide a pathway to healing and reconciliation.

My Heiltsuk childhood was warm, predictable and safe. My parents nurtured and instilled Heiltsuk values including the importance of honesty, respect, generosity and sharing. The sense of family was strongly rooted. The spirit of community and belonging was solid. Immersion in Heiltsuk ways and language was my reality, as was a healthy diet of natural and abundant Heiltsuk traditional foods. Opportunities to learn and develop essential skills in age-appropriate tasks were provided. A sense of responsibility was instilled as was a sense of confidence and connectedness. Berry-picking with my mother was an important bonding time, giving me the satisfaction of contributing to my family’s needs. Emerging conflict resolution skills, social development, team work, and relationship building came from childhood and sibling relationships. All this was to change suddenly without adequate preparation or explanation. 

My life was like a piece of cork tossed into the ocean at the mercy of storms and changing tides—alone, confused, afraid, disconnected and lost. Navigating the outside world eclipsed my Heiltsuk roots and often left me caught between the cracks of these two worlds, not truly fitting into either. Formal education was fraught with preconceived racialized perceptions of my being academically handicapped. Despite pitfalls, I persisted and eventually attained my Bachelor of Education degree from UBC at the age of 45. As a mature, and perhaps naïve student, I had assumed that the Western educational environment would be more welcoming and open. For the most part it was, but my fragile confidence still found it alienating and intimidating. 

In the 18 years that I was removed from my Heiltsuk world, I had to adjust to a world that was the complete opposite of what I knew. As a mere number in residential school, I experienced confusion, fear and isolation. Corporal punishment was a standard practice rather than the more rational t’gai’la (to give advice) that I experienced as a Heiltsuk child. Responsibility in such institutions meant menial chores such as scrubbing floors with a toothbrush as a consequence of trying to question harsh expectations that never seemed rational or reasonable. An inadequate and high carbohydrate diet of unfamiliar and strange foods always left me hungry and longing for the home-cooked protein rich diet that I was used to. Opportunities to further develop decision-making skills, family relationships, and healthy social awareness were almost non-existent. The dormitories were filled with lonely, misplaced girls like me.

Between the time that I left the school and later returned home, I travelled back and forth between Bella Bella and other places in British Columbia 34 times until I settled permanently 18 years later in Bella Bella. I was a stranger in my homeland, no longer fitting into my Heiltsuk world, with no sense of belonging to my family anymore. Without any clues to guide my reintegration, and with feelings of being so ‘Heiltsuk ignorant’, I began to ask questions, most of which must have seemed ridiculous to my parents and old people of the day. In retrospect, I now understand why my Heiltsuk teachers were so patient—they too had alienating and difficult experiences. I later learned that the 98% drop-out rate from schooling was an understandable response to an unhealthy situation. 

Upon my permanent return to Bella Bella, I found my 96-year-old great grandmother entering the last stages of life. I intuitively felt that learning about her was a key to my Heiltsuk quest. As a tribute to her, I undertook a genealogy project to honour her. Not knowing that she had 22 children, I became consumed with researching and documenting what I thought would be a simple family tree. More than half of her children died when they were babies, but she had 10 surviving adult children—all of whom were old age pensioners with large families of their own. I discovered that after her husband died, my great grandmother became a resilient and independent widow who built three houses in her lifetime to accommodate her growing extended family. She had 396 direct descendants spanning five generations and I was her oldest great-grandchild. I documented her family tree in a booklet distributed at a subsequent feast to honour her memory. Imagine my surprise when other families asked me to help create their family trees. I was baffled until I realized just what a toll the removal of five generations of Heiltsuk children to residential schools had taken on family relationships across the community. Through memory and interviews over five years, we pieced together the intergenerational connections to nearly every coastal village, based on the previous practice of arranged marriages between offspring of Hereditary Chiefs. The process was both exhilarating and gratifying, as we learned together. What began as a personal quest to understand where I fitted in, ended up being an important healing outcome that continues today. These days, the host of every potlatch and feast documents maternal and paternal family trees, and these are attached to the programs and distributed to guests. Consequently, there is now a strong understanding of who our waa-waax-toos (family relations) are, which is a key to continued healing of our fractured past. 

In 1968, my non-Heiltsuk husband arrived in my community as a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He observed a striking lack of cultural identity or practices that defined us as Heiltsuk people and as a community. Due to the potlatch ban and the missionary hospital, church and school established in our village for a century, our Heiltsuk ceremonies and customs had nearly vanished. Nearly two decades later, in 1985, my husband observed how extended our mortuary processes were and asked if this was because we revered death. After my initial offense and shock in response to his question, I reached out to old people for an answer. I learned that during the potlatch ban and missionary influences, cultural practices went underground and were practiced in private homes with windows blacked out during times of death. Apparently, the missionaries had compassion for our people during these times of mourning, and thus allowed some mortuary practices to continue. To take advantage of this opportunity, non-mortuary practices were also conducted. To accommodate our “illicit” cultural practices in a non-public setting, some of our Chiefs had built large two leveled homes: the main floor was made up of a big living room area that accommodated up to 50 or more guests, alongside a small kitchen to prepare food to feed guests. All bedrooms were built on the top floor. This was an ingenious solution to sustain some of our Heiltsuk practices. In 1985, I asked my grandmother why customs such as coming-of-age practices were included during mortuary feasts. She was still under the impression that there was a law against potlatches, and I presume that there wasn’t an official announcement when this policy was reversed. After our conversation, granny and I began to talk about the various ceremonies and practices that would have taken place in a regular feast or potlatch setting and what took place in a mortuary feast. She taught me that Nuyem was a Heiltsuk word that describes the treasure chest of memories and knowledge that embodies and holds ancestral cultural inheritance through stories, dances, traditional names, history and so on. We began to differentiate them, and re-weave the threads of knowledge and ways based on memories of several knowledge keepers.

In that same year, a family member asked me to help put together a program for a potlatch—the first in 100 years to be held in our community. Again, my ignorance of Heiltsuk ways required me to interview, question, and document the remnants of existing potlatch knowledge. I learned about ceremonies that included youth coming-of-age, mourning ceremonies, washing or purification ceremonies, traditional wedding ceremonies, and so on. Parallel to my cultural investigation, there was a Heiltsuk man who returned home after being at residential school. He was an artist on a mission to learn Heiltsuk songs, dances, names and so on. His mother was a seamstress who made button blankets and aprons with family animal crests. We began to put together the potlatch program based on the recollections of our knowledge keepers. The potlatch was a success and sparked a cultural flame.

Ironically, it was work by the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas at the turn of the 20th century that created a valuable resource used to trigger memories of Heiltsuk. While incomplete, the stories he gathered helped to rebuild the memory bank needed to piece together a semblance of the potlatch that was held in 1985. This fragile beginning has now blossomed into a strong cultural foundation drawing from individual and collective memories. In fact, it has flourished so much that young children now host an annual school cultural ceremony based on the potlatch system. Through this program, children participate in a 7-week Heiltsuk cultural summer camp to learn, practice, and refine their Heiltsuk ways including traditional food harvesting, medicine making, basket weaving, dancing, singing and feasting. They participate at potlatches by performing the “Children’s Play Dance Series”. Due to a resurgence in Heiltsuk art and sewing regalia, most Heiltsuk now own a dance blanket and apron, and have been bestowed with an ancestral name—practices that had earlier been banned during an era when Heiltsuk names were forcibly replaced by Christian ones derived from the bible. Shared inheritance and cultural history that had been denied for so long was being rewoven through the strands of recollection. Through this, my Heiltsuk child started to grow again. 

Local control of local education was assumed in 1976. As a founding member of the community school board, I was excited and filled with hope about how Heiltsuk content could enhance Western curricula, enabling our students to learn from the best of both worlds. For the first time in 100 years, our young people didn’t have to leave home to attend high school. We expected community members to flock to the school to support and celebrate the learning of their children. We were mystified when that didn’t happen. Over time, we learned that many of our people had negative educational experiences. Most adults attended residential schools and lived with toxic memories that resulted in fear and mistrust of educational systems. To gain trust and support, we created family-focussed events. Forty-two years later, the community school concept is a reality and there are more than 25 certified Heiltsuk-born teachers who work here and elsewhere: a living example of how negative memories can be healed through patience, encouragement and inclusion. 

For many years, I’ve had a recurring nightmare of being lost. In this troubling dream, I try to find my way home but am unsuccessful. I find myself in alien settings where I fear for my life, but I’m determined to go home. Finally, last month, I had a dream in which I reached closure. I was walking down a long road that would lead me home. There were deep and dangerous potholes, a treacherously cracked pavement, and seemingly insurmountable barriers over which I had to climb to continue on my journey. At some point, I came upon an old man slumped in a wheelchair and clothed in rags. The wheelchair was at a sharp angle and he was at risk of tumbling off the road. I stopped to help and was shocked to find that the man was my father. He, too, was trying to find his way home after escaping from a residential school. I pushed his wheelchair and we went home. My mother was so happy to see us that she invited relatives to feast with us. In a short time, my father’s age was reversed, and he was transformed into a younger, vital, and strong man. Our relatives embraced us and celebrated our return home.

I woke from the dream with happy and sad tears streaming down my face. Happy because we had found our way back home. Sad because through my nightmare, I comprehended the circumstances of my father’s experiences. He was taken away to attend residential school at the age of seven and returned when he was 16 years old. He passed away four years ago, and, during our life together, we had difficulty expressing our feelings for each other. He was hardworking, disciplined, responsible and caring. He was the son of a Hereditary Chief who provided for and protected his family. As our cultural ways grew, I encouraged him to take on his rightful role as a Hemas (Hereditary Chief). At first, he was reluctant, but I promised to help him based on what I learned about our potlatch system. In the end, he did host a potlatch and ascended to his rightful place as a Hemas. He connected with his extended family from another village, and they came to participate in and support him in his cultural celebration. They remembered his paternal lineage and through this, helped him to heal from that longstanding disconnection. This was such good medicine for his Heiltsuk soul. 

As I continued my journey to my Heiltsuk self, I was blessed with many mentors. One of them was an old man who telephoned me often to share stories and educate me in Heiltsuk knowledge and teachings. To paraphrase, he always began our lessons by saying “Put on your Heiltsuk mind and leave your White mind alone for a while so I can teach you something about us.” Or he would begin by asking me to look at my skin and tell him what colour it was on that day. He was a fluent Heiltsuk speaker and had limited command of the English language. When we spoke, he would remind me to speak slower—not because he was stupid, but because he had to convert into his Hailhzaqv mind what I said in English, to think about it in Hailhzaqv context, change it back to English and then respond to me. When I first heard him say this, I was completely taken aback because of the depth of teaching that he imparted. In essence, he taught me that the two worlds of which I was a part were very different and that both had value. He reminded me that I was born into our Heiltsuk world, was removed from it, and then became confused and lost. His candor helped me to realize how much my mind had been acculturated and how mindful I must be to decolonize my indoctrinated Western thinking and reality. His Heiltsuk education helped me find my way home. 

The ancestral name that I inherited from my maternal grandmother is Hilistis. It’s a name that comes from an old village where an animal race circumnavigating the world took place. Whichever animal returned home first would signify the reigning animal clan of that village. In the story, the raven is first to return. Loosely translated, Hilistis means starting out on a journey and staying on course until it is completed in full circle by returning home. What an appropriate name given my quest to relocate my Heiltsuk self and find my journey home. The gift of memory has been instrumental in my Heiltsuk cultural reconnaissance. At last, the 12-year old Heiltsuk girl in me has become an old woman who, in turn, has become a knowledge holder and teacher. It is now her turn to share with others who are trying to find their way back to their cultural selves.