Heiltsuk, Hai Hais, and Oweekeno

The Heiltsuk, Hai Hais, and Oweekeno are part of the central group of the Northern Wakashan language family. The Heiltsuk and Hai Hais traditional territory is located near Bella Bella, while the Oweekeno, who speak Oowekyala, traditionally lived at the head of Rivers Inlet in a village located on Wannok River which flows out of Oweekeno Lake. The villages were laid out along the foreshore, with individual houses organized according to rank. The higher ranking houses were closer to the center of the village, with lower ranking ones spread out on either side along the waterfront.

Heiltsuk houses on Campbell Island. Photo by E. Dosseter, 1881. American Museum of Natual History

Heiltsuk living patterns before colonization were typical of the entire Northwest Coast, with permanent rectangular cedar plank houses located in winter villages, augmented by summer and resource camp housing. The houses were northern in style, with a post and beam structure, double ridgepole, and gabled roof with an adjustable central smoke hole. Interior posts and beams were often carved, and wall planks were applied vertically. The exterior walls of the house were usually hung with woven mats to help insulate the living space. Some Heiltsuk houses had removable wall boards, but most were attached permanently to the structure. Summer and resource camp housing was an undecorated version of the winter house, and bark houses were used at hunting stations and minor camps. Two unique features of the Oweekeno house, are that bark was never used as a sheathing material, and the central fire pit was replaced by Kwakwaka’wakw-style corner fire pits.

Descent groups might possess several actual houses, but the one dwelt in by the Chief, was the physical representation of the group. Houses were explicitly thought of as bodies with cosmological extensions and were often imagined as a totemic animal, with the door hole symbolizing reincarnation.

 

Perhaps the most noteworthy feature of the Heiltsuk/Oweekeno house was its decoration. The front façade was usually highly decorated with crest figures and representations of ancestors, and the door was often circular, representing the mouth of one of these crests or guardian figures. Much like the decorative crest figures on a cedar storage box signify a watchful owner that both contains and possesses the ritual objects stored within, a house, similarly decorated, contained and possessed the persons and ritual life conducted and contained therein.

 

Oweekeno house post. Photo by C. Mackay, 1952. Canadian Museum of Civilization.

A reincarnation ideology underscored the notion of a changeless social order into and out of which individuals were cycled. When “house” members died, they would be passed out of the house not through the door/mouth, but through a specially cut passage signifying all at once the passing through the house’s digestive system; the temporary, traumatic effects of the loss on the house itself; and the possibility of reincarnation. Therefore the Heiltsuk/Oweekeno house can be viewed as a religious centre, as well as the centre of economic and social life.

Textual information for this page: Harkin, 2005; Hilton, 1990.