Approximate 19th-century territory of the Heiltsuk. Redrawn from "Northwest Coast", Vol. 7 of Handbook of North American Indians. View Heiltsuk in a larger map


The Heiltsuks, formerly known as the Bella Bella, traditionally occupied approximately 21,000 square kilometers of land and sea on British Columbia's central coast in the vicinity between Milbanke Sound and Fisher Channel. The territories of the Heiltsuk include numerous inlets, islands, peninsulas, mountains and valleys. Rivers and streams cascade into the sea through heavy forests and dense undergrowth, although few are navigable much beyond tidal influence. As the territory is located on the windward side of Pacific storm systems, the region is characterized by high winds, dense fogs and heavy rainfall, as well as rapid and severe weather changes.

Historically, the principle community of the Heiltsuk was 'Qlc or Bella Bella. Today it is Waglisla, which is still known to many as Bella Bella. It is located on the eastern shore of Campbell Island on the central coast of British Columbia.


The Heiltsuk, like the Oowekeeno and Haihais, are speakers of Heiltsuk-Oowekyala, which is the central member of the northern branch of the Wakashan language family. The Heiltsuk call their language Hailhzaqvla, which means "the Heiltsuk language". This same language is spoken by both the Haihais and the Heiltsuk while Oowekyala is spoken by the Oweekeno. The two languages are nearly mutually intelligible.

Detail of the village of 'Qlc (Bella Bella). Photo by Edward Dossetter, 1881


Although the Heiltsuk did engage in carving monumental pieces of art, such as houseposts, mortuary poles  and canoes, they are better known for their skill in producing more portable pieces such as bentwood boxes, chests, masks and horn spoons and ladles.

Heiltsuk art adheres more closely to the formline canons found among the Haida and Tsimshian on the north coast than it does to the more colourful and less formal style of their linguistic siblings (Kwakwaka’wakw and Nuu-chah-nulth). Heiltsuk art is characterized by light, narrow formlines, extensive open backgrounds, bilaterally symmetrical designs with fully parallel hatching, and particular green and red pigments.


At their seasonal winter villages, the Heiltsuk had rectangular cedar plank houses that resembled houses found along the northern coast. Similar to the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian in style, the houses had vertical wall planks, gabled roofs, a double ridgepole, carved interior posts, adjustable central smoke hole, and mat-lined walls in the sleeping compartments to keep out drifting snow. Similar to the winter houses, with the exception of little or no decorative features, plank dwellings were also built at important resource sites. Bark houses were used at hunting stations and resource sites of less significance.

Heiltsuk transformation mask, ca. 1879. Photo by Harry Foster, Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Textual information for this page: Harkin, 1997; Hilton, 1990; Jonaitis, 2006; CCRD website.